Ferguson Explanation: War on Budgeting?

I wasn’t going to wade into this one, but I just looked at a bunch of take-downs of Niall Ferguson’s Obama-bashing Newsweek cover story from this week that I linked to for the Roundup over at Greg’s place (oops — missed Andrew Sullivan’s, and it’s good), and I noticed something that puts me in something of a dissenting opinion on one point. It’s about this bit:

The president pledged that health-care reform would not add a cent to the deficit. But the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation now estimate that the insurance-coverage provisions of the ACA will have a net cost of close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012-22 period.

And here’s Matthew O’Brien’s response:

Maybe Ferguson doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “deficit”? The only other explanation is that he is deliberately misleading his readers… That Ferguson looked up the CBO’s estimate of the bill’s cost and didn’t notice that those costs are paid for is peculiar indeed. Even more peculiar is that he is apparently doubling down on this falsehood. And yes, it is a very deliberate falsehood.

Here’s the thing: go back to the Ferguson quote. What does that sound like to you? That’s right: it’s our old friend the Republican War on Budgeting.In other words, O’Brien’s guess about mendacity isn’t the right path; it’s his first option, that Ferguson doesn’t know what a deficit is. Or, more likely, that we’re dealing with a bit of information feedback loop here, and that Ferguson is recycling junk that’s circulating within conservative circles where the old-fashioned idea of budgets as having to do with a comparison of government revenues and government spending has been almost forgotten. Instead, “deficit” means “stuff we don’t like.” So within that logic what he’s saying makes perfect sense: ACA does in fact add $1.2T (or whatever) to “stuff we don’t like,” or at least stuff that Ferguson doesn’t like. Remember, in war-on-budgeting logic, there’s no offsets, no trade-offs, no pay-fors. There’s just taxes, which are pretty much bad and should always be cut, at least and especially when wealthy people pay them; good stuff, which you should spend money on; and bad stuff, which you should not spend money on, and which is called “deficit” if you do.

Granted, it could be that he’s just being deliberately dishonest from the get-go, and I agree that the follow-up is about as close to a “very deliberate falsehood” as you can get. And granted that guessing about motives and such is a mistake to begin with. But nevertheless: it sounds to me as if Ferguson got caught war-on-budgeting logic and said something that made no sense at all from an actual budget perspective, and then tried to scramble to back-fill it in a way that wasn’t totally embarrassing.

At any rate: I obviously don’t know what he was thinking, if anything, but I do notice that it’s a classic war-on-budgeting mistake, and I think that fits a few other oddities in the original article.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.