Begone, Deficit Scolds, and Never Darken My Towels Again

The negotiations around the “fiscal cliff” have driven a goodly swath of the DC elite into such paroxysms of hypocrisy that it’s beginning to distort space and time. It’s almost mind-boggling how complex the awfulness is (ht). Today Noam Scheiber gives us a profile of one of the primary scolds, Maya MacGuineas, and how she made deficit scolding “chic” (chic used in the DC sense, which is to say not in the same galaxy as actual chic). The timeline is a nice breakdown of the wretched, pointless cruelty of the whole deficit scold class.

First we have a group of rich elites who have been wrong about every single major economic event for the past decade howling about the apocalyptic consequences of not reducing the deficit right now (even though people are literally paying the government to borrow money), trying to force through a “deficit reduction” deal using the debt ceiling:

During the House Republicans’ experiment with refusing to raise the debt ceiling last year, MacGuineas issued a press release stating that “[t]hreatening to blow up the nation’s credit rating and potentially the economy should not be seen as a legitimate negotiating strategy.” She then added: “At the same time, failing to use this debt ceiling ‘hammer’ to force serious fiscal reforms would be a dangerous lost opportunity.” It was a bit like condemning hostage-taking in the strongest terms, then warning that failing to use hostages to, say, secure a Palestinian state would be downright irresponsible.

The scolds got Congress to write itself into hangman’s noose, consisting of a bunch of blunt cuts to defense and domestic spending, if they couldn’t get a deal, which of course they couldn’t. Remember, that noose—the “fiscal cliff”—would massively reduce the deficit. But it would also cause a big recession. So what do the scolds do? Use it as leverage to try and get a “deficit reduction” deal:

Less than one year later, with the dinner still fresh in her mind, MacGuineas launched the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a lobbying organization bent on persuading Washington to prune the deficit. Under MacGuineas’s stewardship, the group has raised over $40 million and run ads instructing the capital’s powerbrokers to “Just Fix It!” It has dispatched CEOs across the cable dial and to all corners of Beltway officialdom to deliver stern talking-tos about fiscal responsibility. It has even spawned 17 state chapters to spread the word through the hinterlands.

With the fiscal cliff looming this fall, “it seemed like everyone wanted to do Maya’s group,” said an aide to a leading CEO. As it happens, this it-ness is the product of MacGuineas’s remarkable hustle. She has signed up Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, currently the two biggest celebrities in corporate America, as her “co-founders,” and stacked her steering committee with well-connected bigwigs, like Steve Rattner, the private-equity magnate and former Obama auto czar, and JP Morgan Vice Chairman Jimmy Lee.

Just to restate, these people ostensibly dedicated to deficit reduction above all else, people who start organizations called “Fix the Debt,” have spent most of the last few months arguing that the current path of massive deficit reduction is bad because of the danger of the national debt. I literally can’t imagine a more incoherent position. (They don’t actually believe this schlock, of course, they just want lower taxes and cuts to social insurance.)

But this kind of nutty sloganeering has real consequences. I’m pretty confident the president and House Republicans will work something out to avert the worst of the fiscal cliff, but I’m not certain. Left unchecked, it would cause serious damage to the economy and throw millions of people out of work. If so, that would be entirely the fault of the scolds—it’s their creation.

If nothing else, this whole sorry episode should stand as proof that Maya MacGuineas and her pack of scoundrels are morally and intellectually bankrupt, who if they had any honor left would apply for work tomorrow as garbage collectors. If all you can achieve in politics is repeatedly hanging the sword of Damocles over the heads of the American people, it’s time to pack it in.

@ryanlcooper

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.