Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Debt and the Deficit Are Different Things

Curmie is no economist, but he is fundamentally honest, often to his detriment in a world overrun by self-aggrandizement, cowardice, and humorlessness.

By the first part of this statement, I do not mean to suggest that I know nothing of economics. I’ve taken only one college level course in economic theory, but that’s one more than most Americans have taken, and whereas I have no idea what a derivative credit default swap is, I do know that manipulation of those little rascals by the reckless and the unscrupulous was a cause of the global financial meltdown of 2008. I know that the idea that banks are “too big to fail” is a hoax propagated by politicians who know the origin of their re-election gravy train (cf. Iceland).

But what Curmie really understands about economics is the basic terminology: terms like deficit and debt, for example. In terms of governmental budgeting, a deficit occurs when, over a specified period of time, usually a fiscal year, more money is being spent than is being collected in revenue. Debt is the accumulated difference between what is owed and what is available. This blog piece is not about whether the debt or deficit ought to be bigger or smaller than they are. Rather, it’s about basic terms and basic honesty.

You see, Gentle Reader, both political parties in this country purport to care a great deal about these things: the fact that neither side really gives a shit about the bottom line, but only about how we get there, is to be ignored for the moment. There are some things about which honest people of all political stripes can agree: the deficit is going down, and the debt is going up. The Wall Street Journal reports that, “For the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the Congressional Budget Office estimates a deficit of $642 billion, compared with $1.087 trillion a year earlier and the smallest gap since 2008's $458.55 billion shortfall.” In other words, there’s roughly $400 billion less deficit and close to two-thirds of a trillion dollars more debt than a year ago.

And here is where we invoke the second half of Curmie’s self-declaration: the part about being honest. It will come as no surprise to you, Gentle Reader, that leaders on both sides of the aisle are lying through their teeth at every opportunity less than entirely forthright about this whole business. Whether lower deficits and/or debt are intrinsically good things hardly matters: both parties are pretending they are, so the Dems are pretending there’s no problem because the deficit is shrinking, and the GOP is doing their Chicken Little impersonation because the debt is increasing.

That may be more spin than substance on both sides, but at least it’s readily identifiable as political business-as-usual. We started getting into more problematic territory when the usual suspects actually start lying. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be writing this if we didn’t have someone from both sides doing just that.

We start, chronologically, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who taped an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News on August 2 that aired on August 4. Here’s the key section of these remarks: “What we are trying to do is fund the government and make sure also that we take away the kinds of things that are standing in the way of a growing economy, a better health care. And all the while keeping our eye focused on trying to deal with the ultimate problem, which is this growing deficit.” [Both here and below, the emphasis is mine.]

Needless to say, Wallace, good little Fox minion that he is, didn’t correct him. And the incompetent yahoos at PolitiFact even gave him a “Half True” because, you see, although Cantor’s statement is so much equine fecal matter now, current projections are that, absent changes to policy, the deficit will indeed start to increase three years down the road to a point still less than the status quo. The logic—and I use the word loosely—of the PolitiFact idiocracy would similarly suggest that although I am writing this piece at about 11:00 at night, if I say the sun is shining brightly through my window, it’s half true, since it might well be doing so tomorrow afternoon.

No, one of three things is true. I list them here in increasing likelihood of being the correct explanation: 1). It was an honest mistake, a slip of the tongue. 2). Cantor really is so stupid that he doesn’t know the deficit and the debt are different things. 3). He’s lying, and being rather smug about it.

On to third-term Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who was pretending to care about veterans attending a discussion of veterans’ affairs in Shreveport. She “corrected” a veteran who expressed concern about the increasing national debt. According to retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Andre E. Dean, “She assured him that the United States did not have an increasing national debt. She then proceeded to tell all of us that for the past six to seven years the federal government had been continuously driving the federal debt down and reducing it, NOT increasing it.”

OK, this is even stupider that Cantor’s comment. For one thing, it’s even less likely to be a slip of the tongue—she was “correcting” a true statement. (Neither Cantor nor Landrieu have, as far as I can tell, admitted a mistake.) But not even the deficit has been falling for “six to seven years.” The biggest deficit was in FY2009, which was… um… four years ago. On the other hand, there’s a less likelihood that Landrieu was consciously lying, because—unlike Cantor—she really is stupider than snake spit, really is utterly inept, and really might not know that “debt” and “deficit” are different things (or that four is less than six, for that matter).

Whose offense was greater? Cantor, who is probably one of the half dozen most important figures in his party and ought to be held to a higher standard, or Landrieu, who apparently belittled a veteran while yammering nonsense that wouldn’t have been accurate even if she hadn’t confused her terms? Cantor, who was talking to a national television audience and should have been prepared to choose his words wisely, or Landrieu, who was picking a fight with a constituent?

I’ve gotta go with Landrieu’s as the more grievous gaffe. It’s OK if you disagree, though, Gentle Reader, because having Eric Cantor as the less mendacious, unethical, incompetent jackass in a scenario takes a little getting used to. But what’s really troubling is that whether the debt and deficit are actual crises, they’re certainly concerns, and the people we’ve got on the job to fix them are folks like these two.

We’re fucked.

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