When ‘failure’ is relative

When I write about the super-committee “failing,” I’m not implying the panel did something inherently wrong. Generally, failure is supposed to be bad, whereas success is supposed to be good, but that doesn’t apply in this case.

The super-committee failed in a literal sense — members were given a task, they tried to reach a goal, and they came up far short — but this is not to say that their ineffectiveness is necessarily disappointing, or even undesirable.

Atrios made a wise observation yesterday.

So there’s this bipartisan group of elected officials known as “Congress” that passed $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions into law. They also designated a random group of wankers to come up with some alternative $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions as a substitute. They didn’t come up with a substitute. So we have the original path to deficit reduction as opposed to the potential substitute.

Why the press has mostly taken the position that some unspecified substitute would be better, or that cuts are implicitly good…

Quite right. In fact, we can go a little further still.

When the debt-ceiling agreement was reached in August, the parties accepted $900 billion in cuts on top of the additional $1.2 trillion in savings, for a total of $2.1 trillion in debt reduction over the next decade.

The super-committee was told it could explore an alternative debt-reduction package, and perhaps work on an agreement that would reduce the debt even more, but the panel’s failure doesn’t change the underlying reality: Congress still approved $2.1 trillion in debt reduction over the next decade.

How is this affected by the super-committee’s failure? That’s the point — it doesn’t affect this at all.

As a political matter, we know exactly what we’ll see next. Congressional Republicans, who recommended a massive cut in defense spending in the debt-reduction package, will say that their own idea is far too dangerous and if the GOP proposal is implemented, it would hurt the country and undermine our national security. Indeed, Republicans have already begun to argue that they want less debt reduction, and will demand that Democrats agree to — you guessed it — spend more money.

I’ll flesh this out in more detail soon, but the larger point is the same: the super-committee’s failure to find an alternative plan just isn’t an example some massive breakdown.