Opinions may differ on how to reduce the budget deficit, but everyone agrees we mustn’t kick the can down the road. “Congress and the president would prefer to find new and creative ways to kick the can down the road,” complains Maya McGuinness, president of the Committee For A Responsible Budget. “There may be some in Congress,” Obama says, who want “to kick the can down the road when it comes to solving the larger problem of our deficit. I don’t share that view.” New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera asks whether Congress is “just going to kick the can down the road, or are they really doing something serious for 2013?” More apocalyptically, House Republican Conference chair Cathy McMorris tells Politico, “We always talk about whether or not we’re going to kick the can down the road. I think the mood is that we’ve come to the end of the road.” (The latest House Republican plan is to kick the can down the road for three months.)
Well, maybe. But before we heed this Washington cliché, let's consider its origins. The nation's capital didn’t invent the can-kicking trope. At least as far back as 1968, the pop musician Randy Newman sang (in his achingly sad “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”):
Tin can at my feet
Think I’ll kick it down the street
That’s the way to treat a friend.
And that’s just going by personal memory. But Washington has a way of seizing a once-fresh metaphor and never letting go. (See Politico's amusing supercut below.) So when did it first seize “kick the can down the road”?
Not being an etymologist, and only willing to give this question a limited quantity of attention, I consulted the Nexis database, which defines the beginning of time as the 1980s. What I found was that “kick the can down the road” became common in the budget-deficit wars of the 1990s. Prior to 1990, though, it was used exclusively in arms control discussions to bewail Washington’s failure to decide the fate of either the planned MX land-based nuclear missile (MX stood for “Missile Experimental”) or the space-based antimissile Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”). Although the nominal complaint was against indecision, the underlying complaint was that Washington was delaying implementation of these very necessary weapon systems. In both cases, the holdup was based partly on the anti-nuclear sentiment then voguish on the left (which still had some influence in those distant days). Mostly, though, the holdup was attributable to the raising of a lot of very practical questions about technological feasibility. The MX, for instance, was to move along train tracks (some of them underground) so Russian missiles couldn’t take them out, and there were endless debates about how this could be done. My friend Gregg Easterbrook humorously suggested that we put the missiles on Amtrak trains and give the Soviets the train schedule.
Star Wars went through a gazillion ludicrous iterations (including one memorably titled “Brilliant Pebbles”) before dying a quiet death during the Clinton years; by then, of course, the Cold War was over, calling its utility into serious question. The MX, renamed the “Peacekeeper,” enjoyed a brief and limited deployment of 50 missiles (in silos, not on tracks) starting in 1986. When the last MX was decommissioned in 2005, Airforce Undersecretary Ronald Sega credited it with helping to end the Cold War, but he was probably just being polite. After all, by the time the MX was finally deployed, Mikhail Gorbachev was already in power and aggressively seeking peace with the West. Three years later the Cold War ended.
The arms-control lesson, then, would appear to be that kicking the can can be wise strategy. Killing Star Wars and the MX the moment they were proposed would have been thriftier, but that was politically impossible. In the MX’s case, history’s lesson is that if we couldn't kill it, we should have at least kicked the can down the road a bit longer, until its obsolescence became undeniable.
Can this lesson be transferred to the deficit talks? Clearly kicking the can was a preferable option to the recently averted, deficit-slashing "fiscal cliff," which threatened to put the country back in recession. And even the Koch brothers prefer can-kicking to Congress playing political games with the debt ceiling. The deficit is not a problem that will solve itself, as the Cold War did when the arteriosclerotic Soviet empire finally expired. But as Paul Krugman notes in today’s Times (citing data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities), the latest budget projections indicate that, assuming the economy recovers, the ten-year outlook looks much better than you’ve heard. We’ll have to collect more taxes and cut more entitlement spending, but we have time to figure out how to do that fairly and in a way that makes economic sense. Certainly we shouldn’t try to cook up a quick comprehensive plan in the next three months. Kicking the can down the road has a more distinguished history than most people realize, and it’s the best option for right now. Meanwhile, let's retire the phrase. We've sat on that can way too long.