Mirrors, smoke, sleight of hand, trap doors or false walls and distractions, these are the tools of the magician’s disappearing act. But a real-life wizard’s most powerful tool isn’t a gadget, it’s his audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief.
At least that might begin to explain how Donald Trump and most Republicans in Congress have taken the budget deficit and national debt — once their unifying doctrine that merited filibusters, budget stalemates and costly government shutdowns back when Barack Obama was in the White House — and made those concerns vanish. One day, it’s a crisis of unfathomable proportions. The next? It’s something to deal with in the future. Maybe. Possibly.
But aren’t things going great now?
This is not mere hypocrisy. After all, when it comes to federal spending, sanctimony and pietism has long been the GOP coin of the realm even as certain lawmakers vacuumed up dollars for their favorite causes and military contractors. No, this is beyond that. It’s a dazzling display of how an entire political movement, the tea party, can be nurtured, promoted and then entirely subverted.
The alternative fact that made it all possible? A willingness to just say nothing. It’s as if the concept of the government spending more money than it takes in from taxes, along with all the mounting IOU’s that make this possible, ceased to exist. Poof.
This incredible disappearing deficit worry has never been more pronounced than last week when congressional leaders sought support for the two-year bipartisan budget deal recently made with President Trump. The agreement raises spending by $300 billion and while some hardcore deficit hawks have complained, their criticisms aren’t exactly stinging — or especially loud or prominently played on conservative media. Meanwhile, the deficit has already been ballooning and the national debt has reached a record $22 trillion thanks to another $1 trillion deficit projected for this year. The two best ways to trim a deficit, cut spending or raise taxes, are clearly out of favor. Instead, there’s still talk about how the nation can grow itself out of the problem which is curious since that’s clearly not working now, nor has it ever.
What should be especially alarming to those folks who used to care about deficit spending is that debt now exceeds the gross domestic product which hasn’t happened since World War II. And who owns all that paper? The biggest holder of U.S. debt is Social Security. That intragovernment obligation (along with all the money owed to foreign governments like China) gives the whole thing a certain house of cards flavor.
As a candidate for president, Mr. Trump once boasted that he would eliminate the deficit in eight years. Yet it’s only gotten worse even as the post-Great Recession economic recovery that began under Barack Obama has continued, interest rates remain low and unemployment rates have dropped. If the deficit can’t be reduced under these circumstances, when can it?
Now, perhaps one can make an argument not to get too worried about debt. But that wasn’t the core Republican belief of five years ago when the outlook was actually better. The deficit doomsayers didn’t change their argument so much as clam up. Almost completely. “House Republicans should support the TWO YEAR BUDGET AGREEMENT which greatly helps our Military and our Vets. I am totally with you!” the president tweeted Thursday.
Not a word about deficits there. Not even a sign of regret. Instead, Mr. Trump is tweeting about how his economic approval rating should be 100% favorable. “Best stock market, economy and unemployment numbers ever!”
Here’s a sobering number that won’t make the presidential Twitter feed. Interest payments on the debt are rising and it could get much, much worse. In the current fiscal year, it’s expected to be $393.5 billion or 8.7% of all federal spending. It’s actually been a bigger percentage of spending before but that’s only because interest rates are so low right now.
What happens as they rise? As we noted when Mr. Obama was in the Oval Office, the best recourse would be to attack the problem from both directions, limiting the growth of spending while closing tax loopholes and, in some cases, raising tax rates (we’re looking at you, federal gas tax left unchanged since Bill Clinton was president). But who wins an election by being non-magical?
Voters have a habit of supporting candidates who promise the reality they most desire, not the one that’s actually possible.