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The Sequester and the Myth of WaPo’s “5 Myths”

For background on WaPo’s 5 Myths series, see my last post on it. The entry in today’s paper (but online since Thursday) is “5 Myths about the Sequester.” The authors are two frequent talking heads on outlets like the PBS News Hour, Thomas E. Mann of the liberal Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein, the one member of the reactionary American Enterprise Institute who realizes that no one will listen to him if he just parrots its line.

The authors’ introduction gives the recent history involving “a near-default on the public debt and a ‘fiscal cliff’ that threatened a new recession,” and then says we face “another man-made crisis” with the across-the-board budget cuts that went into effect last Friday. Notice that this already adopts standard inside-Beltway jargon with “fiscal cliff” and “man-made crisis.” Then Mann and Ornstein get right to what they call separating fact from fiction on five points:

1. Blame Obama — the sequester was his White House’s idea.

After duly referencing Robert Redford Bob Woodward’s version of this charge offered the other day, M&O say it’s too simple. They claim that the idea emerged through 2011 negotiations between “the parties,” who proposed a super-committee to iron out a deficit-reduction plan, and a sequester as something “designed to be so potentially destructive that the supercommittee would surely reach a deal to avert it.” They say that O never envisaged the possibility that it would actually happen.

What this repetition of the conventional wisdom ignores is the statement by O’s advisor Gene Sperling himself, pointed out by FDL’s Jon Walker, that “the sequester was just designed to force all back to table on entitlements and revenues” (translation: force liberals among the Democrats to accept chained-CPI and other such attacks). Thus “Myth” #1 is closer to the truth than the authors acknowledge.

2. At least the automatic cuts will reduce runaway spending and begin to control the deficit.

Here the authors simply deny this Republican talking point, quoting a few numbers to the effect that the spending is not excessive. Why bother? Maybe because in the process they get to claim that, although spending on war-making defense has increased lately, “that pattern has slowed and will soon end. Additional reductions must be achieved intelligently, tied to legitimate national security needs.” Sure.

Notice that apart from that appeal to naiveté, M&O do not even hint at thr real truth: We need MORE spending, on infrastructure, on education, on green technology, on … , to get the economy going and to attack massive social problems. So they have successfully refuted Myth #2; big deal.

3. The amounts are so small, they won’t hurt much.

Here our erstwhile authors first quote the WaPo columnist I have called Baseball Fan to the effect that the $85B in cuts for this year amount to “only” 2.3% of the total federal budget, and then point out that (a) most of the federal budget is shielded from the cuts, and that (b) they must be applied to only a bit more than half of the fiscal year that remains. Further,

With little discretion about trimming areas such as aviation and food safety, layoffs and furloughs will interrupt services vital to the economy and public health.

That is, M&O are concerned with people who have enough money to fly and enough food to worry about its safety. I only wish we could say that those who lack those niceties will not suffer even more.

In short, it’s certainly a myth but the refutation is weak.

4. The cuts are so large, they will be catastrophic.

Here M&O simply claim that if one looks at the detailed estimates provided by the Obama administration the effects will not be “so immediate or dramatic,” although “damage will accumulate in less visible ways.” And we’re supposed to believe this why?

5. This fight is all about money.

That is to say, apparently, the sequester is truly for the purpose of reducing the budget deficit. Here the two-paragraph response is a thinly disguised polemic against the Republicans for “taking a meat ax to government as we know it” with the sequester and the upcoming threats to shut down the government and to refuse to raise the debt limit. The authors’ one substantive point is to say,

if the goal were really debt reduction, it would be easy to get a bipartisan deal that would lower the debt enough to meet the original target set by the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, with roughly a third coming from revenue.

I’ll give them that, but not the implication that it is only the Republicans who refuse to deal. Mann and Ornstein have not disproved the suspicion that O really wanted the sequester for the moment, to give him leverage in the negotiations that will unfold in the coming months to overturn it, so that he could strong-arm reluctant Congressional liberals into accepting cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Basically, the article is a mix of platitudes and airy abstractions; it does not recognize that there will be real blood in the coming months, with blame accruing to both parties.

Photo by Achifaifa under Creative Commons license

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