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Why Is Washington Obsessed With The Deficit?

With the entire political world focused on the dangers of the national debt, it's worth stepping back and thinking about how this came to be. After all, I think a very solid case can be made that climate change presents a more urgent problem than the national debt. The damage from climate change, unlike the the damage from the debt, is irreversible. Moreover, while climate science is being treated as speculative and budget forecasts as hard fact, the reverse is closer to reality: budget forecasts are highly unreliable. I have a hard time believing that a highly informed person transported from the future to the present would analyze the problems facing the United States and conclude that the political class should focus like a laser beam on the budget deficit while largely ignoring climate change.

What, then, accounts for this odd state of affairs? It seems to be a classic triumph of agenda-setting. You have well-financed groups like the Peterson Institute promoting the view that the national debt is a uniquely vital issue. This view comports with the ideological preconception of Washington elites, both inside and outside of elected office, as well as financial elites. Thus you have things like this:

An indication of where the Senate may be headed occurred on Feb. 1. Nearly 40 senators from both parties gathered in the Capitol Visitors Center to listen to two hedge-fund managers, one a Democrat, the other a Republican. Their message: Soaring debt threatens growth, job creation and America's preeminence in the world. Asked what single thing Congress could do to relieve the anxiety of financial markets, their answer was "fix Social Security."

...which reflect a fairly twisted understanding of fiscal reality -- Social Security representing none of the medium-term fiscal shortfall and a small part of the long-term fiscal shortfall -- but a perfect encapsulation of the elite consensus.

Now, I want to be clear about this. I am not saying the medium-term deficit is a non-issue. Nor am I arguing that we can't solve any problem until more important problems are solved. Failing to solve an urgent crisis is not a reason to ignore a somewhat smaller crisis. The point is that we've constructed an entire set of assumptions around the notion of the national debt as the singular problem facing America. Even the mainstream press has adopted the anti-deficit movement's euphemisms, employing terms like "leadership" to mean "cutting social entitlement benefits."

Could you imagine reporters constructing a typology and vocabulary in which elected officials who want to put a price on carbon are courageous truth-tellers, and opponents lazy demagogues? Where anybody who (even purportedly) opposes climate change automatically earns fawning coverage, and where politicians are routinely bombarded with questions about how they plan to address the climate problem? I can't. You can agree that the deficit requires solution while still marveling at the way it has become a kind of free-floating moral signifier, detached from any rational policy analysis.