David Coates

Reframing the Deficit Debate

The dominant discourse in national American politics these days is a discourse on deficits. The leadership of the Republican Party, emboldened by their mid-term capture of the House, regularly informs us that “we are broke, and that we need to do something about it.”  By “we,” they invariably mean the federal government. By ‘broke,” they mean the scale of borrowing currently necessary to balance the federal government’s books. By “doing something about it,” they mean the wholesale cutting of a swathe of discretionary public programs: $61 billion worth of such cutting if the mainstream Republican politicians have their way, $100 billion if the Tea Party agenda prevails. When American families overspend, as we are now so regularly told, they have to cut back on the things they buy. They can borrow, of course, just like the government is currently doing: but piling up debt only puts off until tomorrow the restraint necessary today. It puts that restraint off, and it makes the ultimate scale of reckoning worse. In the end therefore, and ideally immediately, budgets have to balance. That is a fact of life – a fact of life for families and a fact of life for governments. American families are currently cutting back, and the federal government needs to do the same. When the Republican leadership is not busy eroding the reproductive rights of women – its other clear preoccupation – it is regularly pressing for a rolling back of the already modest American welfare and regulatory state, and doing so under the label of “fiscal responsibility.”


What could possibly be wrong with that?  What could possibly be wrong with holding the federal government to the same standard as that applied to hard-pressed American families? Well, actually, quite a lot.


There are at least three things missing from the dominant discourse, three bodies of material that progressives need continually to bring back into the public conversation about deficit reduction. We need continually to reassert  (a) that “we” are not broke; (b) that cutting programs would not the best way to reduce the deficit, even if we were broke; and (c) that the dominant issue in American life – as distinct from in American politics – is not the scale of public borrowing. America has many bigger problems than its supposedly dangerous deficit, problems that premature deficit reduction will likely make even worse.


1.      We are not broke. We are certainly not broke in the sense of facing any immediate problem of financing public debt. On the contrary, the federal government is currently able to borrow at a historically low rate of interest – lower indeed now than immediately before the 2007-8 financial melt-down. Moreover, the federal tax take – the share of GDP passing through the hands of the federal government in the form of direct and indirect taxation – is actually at a 60 year low; not, of course, that you would know this if the only people to whom you listened were John Boehner and Paul Ryan.[1] So before any cutting of discretionary programs takes place, the opportunity is clearly there to raise tax levels back to those prevalent when the U.S. economy was last growing in any sustained fashion.[2] Indeed that was the main argument for the restoration of the Bush tax cuts: that allowing the tax cuts to lapse merely returned levels of personal taxation to those paid by American entrepreneurs and workers in the boom years of the 1990s. Since those boom years have left in their wake an even sharper scale of inequality between Americans than had prevailed even under Reagan,[3] there is clearly space too for clawing some of that excess back in the form of higher taxes on the super-rich.[4] The median income of mainstream America fell by 4.9 percent between 2001 and 2009 – the first fall in U.S. median income since the 1930s – so the space for taxing the middle class has clearly diminished;[5] but the space for taxing the rich remains firmly intact.


2.      Cutting programs is not the best way to cut the deficit. It would be the best way, of course, if the major cause of the federal deficit was excessive spending on discretionary public programs. But it isn’t.[6] At least 75 percent of the current shortfall in government revenues is a product of the recession. Another 11 percent is a product of decisions taken, by this administration and its predecessor, to wage a series of Middle Eastern wars.[7] The best way to cut the deficit is to end those wars and to retrigger sustained economic growth, not least by greater public expenditure on infrastructure and human capital. The best way to take any immediate pressure off the public purse would be to eschew tax cuts for the rich and to support public programs that cut the deficit over time.[8] Any party serious about deficit reduction would presumably do both those things straightaway. But the Republican Party is apparently not that serious. Its last act in the 111th Congress was to insist on the extension of all the Bush tax cuts through to 2013, adding $36 billion to the deficit in 2011 as it did so. Its first major initiative in the House, after taking control for the duration of the 112th Congress, was to repeal the health care reform legislation passed in 2010: adding – according to the CBO’s first estimates – at least a further $230 billion to the deficit by 2021. It is hard therefore to avoid the conclusion that, far from being serious about deficit reduction as an end in itself, the new crop of Republican lawmakers are whipping up an hysteria about deficits as a smokescreen under which to take out programs to which they are ideologically opposed, and which they would wish to terminate regardless of the immediate state of the public finances.


3.      Deficit reduction is not the nation’s top priority, and nor should it be. As the political class in Washington squabbles over deficit numbers, the rest of America struggles with the on-going consequences of the recession. Unemployment is still officially at 8.9 percent, and in reality is much higher than that: labor market participation rates are at a 25 year low, and one American in six is currently either out of work or stuck in part-time employment that does not pay enough to cover the family bills. The unemployment rate among workers aged 16-24 is currently 21%. Not surprisingly therefore, poverty is on the rise again in America, directly affecting 14.3 percent of all Americans in 2009 – some 43.6 million people in total –with another 50 million low-paid Americans on the brink of joining them. Both poverty and unemployment are currently compounded by the on-going crisis in the housing market, a crisis still encompassing one American household in five.[9] Little wonder then that public opinion polls regularly put deficit reduction low on the list of the nation’s pressing issues;[10] and little wonder too that liberal voices continue to stress that too rapid a reduction in public spending can only make that recession worse.[11] And if you doubt that, just look across the Atlantic, at a UK center-right government that is slashing public spending with enthusiasm: cutting taxes and services in almost equally measure, and presiding in consequence over rising unemployment among teachers and other public servants, diminished consumer confidence, and deepening levels of poverty and income inequality.[12] The Cameron Government in London, like their Republican equivalents here, insists that reducing the size of government creates economic opportunities which private enterprise will rapidly seize. Sadly, however, no such seizure is currently underway. What the UK faces right now is less a private sector renaissance than a double-dip recession – hardly a scenario worth voluntarily emulating anywhere.


Deficit reduction, Republican-style, is not sound economics. It is class warfare wrapped up in the language of accountancy.[13] What is being cut are services vital to the well-being of the American middle class and to the American poor. What is being protected is the private income of the corporate rich. The very people who elected Barack Obama to the presidency are now the main casualties of a deficit-reduction strategy that his administration is trying to temper rather than to reject. You would think, wouldn’t you, that the White House would recognize the underlying evil behind this project, and respond accordingly. But so far it has not. Instead the Administration is triangulating again. It is deploying the same framework of understanding as its political opponents. It is talking of the federal budget as though it was equivalent to a family one. It is making a virtue of tough choices that erode welfare rights; and it is escalating its war-fighting expenditures at the very moment when a lack of public funds is costing teachers their jobs and Medicaid recipients their benefits. As Jon Stewart so wittily asked earlier this week, surely you can’t fire teachers and tomahawk missiles at the same time. Well sadly, this Administration can, and is: spending more that $100 million a day in Libya right now. $100 million a day: think what that money could do if it were redirected to state governments currently laying off teachers and struggling to cope with the effect on their Medicaid budgets of the looming (July) termination of stimulus funds.


Instead of temporizing with Republicans who are determined to cut public services regardless of the appalling social consequences, the Obama Administration should, as a matter of high priority, mount a clear and sustained challenge to the whole logic underlying the Republican position. Instead of accommodation, the Administration should try principled rejection. The President should challenge the Republicans to shut the government down. He should force them to justify in public their toxic combination of tax cuts for the wealthy and the erosion of basic public services. He should remind the American electorate that it was Republican pressure that removed key cost-saving devices from the health care reform legislation – not least the cost-saving device of the public option. He should defend public sector workers against the nonsense that it is their largesse – rather than that of corporate America – that is bringing public spending to the point of collapse.[14] He should stand firm in defense of public sector unions and the right to collectively bargain. And he should not leave that job to Joe Biden alone.[15] He should do it himself. Because if he does not, Republican definitions of reality will continue to command the day; and from that basis of command will, in 2012, sweep all before them for want of anything better.[16]


The President would do well to remember that the important thing about legacies is that they have to be defended. Given the accommodatory strategy now prevalent in his White House, there is a genuine and growing danger that his administration may yet be the first in U.S. history to have surrendered its legacy before it has even left office. Given the tragedy that such a surrender would represent, let us hope that it is not too late to reverse this slippage into disaster. To stop the rot, the Administration has first to get off its knees.





[1] Income tax payments this year will be almost 13 percent lower than in 2008, and tax expenditures (that is, taxes that are excused – the biggest of which is currently the tax exemption for employer-sponsored health insurance – currently dwarf even the largest entitlement program expenditure.  Tax expenditures will cost the US Treasury $1,053 billion in 2010. Medicare and Medicaid together will only cost $719 billion; and Social Security (which pays for itself) $701 billion. The cost of the health tax exemption is estimated to be more than $1 trillion over the next five years.  For this data, see  Seth Hanlon, “Tax Expenditure of the Week: Tax-Free Health Insurance,” Center for American Progress, January 12, 2011, available at: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/01/te_011211.html; Stephen Ohlemacher, ‘Taxes (as a percentage of economy) drop to lowest level in 60 years,” posted on The Huffington Post, February 7, 2011: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/07/taxes-low_n_819760.html; and see Jamelle Bouie, “Where the Cash At,” The American Prospect, March 18, 2011: available at http://prospect.org/csnc/blogs/tapped_archive?month=03&year=2011&base_name=where_the_cash_at


[2] “In 2008, we ranked 26 out of the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in terms of our overall tax burden – the share of our economy we fork over to the government. The U.S. came in almost 9 percentage points below the average of the group of wealthy nations, and some 20 points behind highly taxed countries like Denmark.” (Joshua Holland, “The 9 Biggest Conservative Lies About Taxes and Public Spending”, posted on Alternet December 19, 2010, and available at http://www.alternet.org/story/149265)


[3] The top one percent of U.S. income earners took for themselves two-thirds of total income growth between 2002 and 2007. ( Data from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, available at: http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2908)


[4] For this case in more detail, see Bernie Sanders, “Deficit Reduction Requires Shared Sacrifice,”, posted on The Huffington Post March 13, 2011: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rep-bernie-sanders/a-time-for-shared-sacrifi_b_835166.html


[5] For this and relevant data, see Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, Have Earnings Actually Declined? Posted on Brookings Up Front Blog, March 7, 2011: available at http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2011/0304_jobs_greenstone_looney.aspx


[6] On the contrary, “the nondefense discretionary spending now under attack by conservatives is not responsible for the rise of budget deficits in recent years. Between 2008 and 2011, when the cumulative deficits rose by $4.1 trillion, CBO’s estimates for the discretionary budget have been revised upwards by only $400 billion, or about 9.9% of the total fiscal deterioration.” (Andrew Fieldhouse, Budgeting tradeoffs,” Economic Policy Institute, March 8, 2011: available at http://www.epi.org/analysis_and_opinion/entry/budgeting_tradeoffs/)


[7] Josh Bivens and Anna Turner, Putting Public Debt in Context, EPI Briefing Paper #272, August 3, 2010, available at http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/putting_public_debt_in_context/


[8] Focusing especially on programs designed to bend the curve of rising health care costs – the major long-term escalator of public expenditure.


[12] . On any sane estimate, as much as 86% of the shortfall in UK public revenues in 2009-10 was due to the lack of economic growth. (These figures from Professor Colin Hay at the University of Sheffield) The UK, after all, is not fighting three full overseas wars. So their excuse for brutal spending cuts is even less legitimate than ours. For details of the cuts’ adverse consequences, see Philip Inman, “Outlook for family finances bleakest for two years, survey shows,”, Jessica Sheppard, ‘Teachers under threat as schools prepare to cut staff by up to a fifth,” and Polly Toynbee, ‘As the slump hits home, George Osborne budgets for decay,” in The Guardian, March 14, 2011 (Inman) & March 21, 2011 (Sheppard and Toynbee).


[13] See Eileen Appelbaum, Cutting Spending In this Disasterous Recession Is Just Another Way of Assaulting Working America, posted on Alternet, March 14, 2011: available at http://www.alternet.org/economy/150237/cutting_spending_in_this_disastrous_recession_is_just_another_way_of_assaulting_working_america?page=3


[14] For that rebuttal, see the EPI report on Minnesota public sector workers, available at http://www.epi.org/newsroom/press-entry/news_from_epi_minnesota_public-sector_workers_undercompensated


[15] For details, see Amanda Terkel, “Vice President Biden Fires Up Union Activists,” posted on The Huffington Post, March 17, 2011: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/17/biden-union-barbarians-labor_n_837346.html


[16] Robert Reich is also worried, and rightly so. He is worried that the Republican leadership continues to lie about jobs – falsely claiming that cutting the deficit will create jobs when in truth such cutting will likely reduce their number. But what worries him almost as much – and me too – “is the silence of President Obama and other Democratic leaders in the face of’ these lies. As he put it on Wednesday’s Huffington Post, “Obama has the bully pulpit. Republicans don’t. But if he doesn’t use it, the Republicans big lie gains credibility.” (Robert Reich, “The Republicans’ Big Lies About Jobs (And Why Obama Must Repudiate Them)”, The Huffington Post, March 23 2011, available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-reich/the-republicans-big-lies-_b_839341.html)

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

17 Responses to “Reframing the Deficit Debate”

  1. Barry Clendenin says:

    I agree that the intense focus on reducing FY 2011 non-defense discretionary appropriations at a level $100 million below the President’s FY 2011 request misses the mark on what might be the best options for reducing the expected $1.4 trillion deficit for this fiscal year. As it stands today, both the Administration and the Congress have agreed to a 50% reduction in the $100 million level through the current Continuing Resolution that expires on April 8th. Hopefully a government shutdown can be avoided and funding for the remainder of FY 2011 will be settled; but, given the ideological focus of some members, I would not be surprised if there were a shutdown for some days.

    For the longterm, I would support some combination of revenue increases, discretionary spending trimming and entitlements reform, believing it is better to start early rather than waiting until something unexpected disrupts the economy.

    Even with the expected benefits, including savings, from the health reform act of 2010, the CBO’s March 18th preliminary analysis of the President’s FY 2012 Budget projects accumulated deficits of $9.5 trillion will occur between FY 2012 and FY 2021;net interest on the debt alone would jump from $240 billion in FY 2012 to $928 billion in FY 2021.

    I believe we can find some things to phaseout or reform throughout the Federal budget that are not so idelogically driven — see for example the GAO recent report “Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue,” March 2011 (GAO-11-318SP}. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-441T; and the CBO report, “Reducing the Deficit: Spending and Revenue Options,” March 10, 2011 http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/120xx/doc12085/03-10-ReducingTheDeficit.pdf.

    For another view on the nation’s long term financing challenges see Paul Posner’s paper, “Will it Take a Crisis,” issued in March 2011 by the Pew Charitable Trusts http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/Economic_Mobility/Posner-Will-it-Take-a-Crisis.pdf

    Dr. Posner notes that during the 1980s and the 1990s and with divided governments at the national level, there were a number of instances — for example in 1990 and then again in 1997 — where longterm agreements were reached for changes in both tax policy and spending policy. The national budget then ran annual surpluses between FY 1998 and FY 2001.

    If we all feel some discomfort in whatever budget agreements are eventually reached, then we may be on a good path.

    Best regards —

    Barry Clendenin

  2. David Coates says:

    Dear Barry
    I gladly defer to your expertize and experience in managing the public accounts, but I remain unconvinced that this should be an exercise which culminates, as you put it, in “discomfort” all round. Right now, people are losing their homes because they are losing their jobs, and they are losing their jobs because the private sector continues to be reluctant to hire. If the UK is any guide, and I think it is, we can also expect large layoffs among state employees and cuts in state services (education and Medicaid) as the stimulus money ends. Which is why I remain in agreement with Paul Krugman when he argues, as he did this morning in The New York Times that we need job creation first and deficit reduction later. It is also why the op-ed called for the Obama administration to fight fire with fire: to challenge Republican Party determination to cut programs with a principled progressive defense of each program to be cut. Yes, let’s good for waste and overlap in public programs. By all means: but let’s look too at tax avoidance by corporations (This morning’s New York Times documented that for General Electric, whose CEO has Obama’s public support); and hold the line against those saying we cannot carry the current level of public debt without facing a Greek-life crisis of lender confidence and Treasury default. Yes we can, and yes we must, carry this level of public debt until public spending (with all its positive demand-side consequences) triggers business confidence again. It was economic growth, after all, not bipartisan tax deals, that turned deficit into surplus at the end of the Clinton era. Welfare rolls fell because jobs became plentiful. We need that job growth again.
    Do you agree?
    Best wishes

  3. Barry Clendenin says:

    Dear David —

    I certainly agree that job growth should be the first priority in our nation’s economic goals.

    While I expect a great deal of the national political debate this year to remain on proposals for longterm deficit and debt reduction, I believe that the best approach would be to come to a multiple-year (at least five years) agreement this year and to have the effects of changes in tax policy (increases and decreases) and spending reductions — primarily entitlements start (small) in 2013 and then expand in each subsequent year. Apart from gaining a rhetorical advantage, if the R’s cannot advance proposals that gain D’s support and that of the President, nothing positive will happen. Jack Lew, the new OMB Director since 2010 { and also the OMB Director between 1998 and 2001} is a skilled leader and negotiator and has a record of success in making principled budget deals.http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0311/51970.html

    Thus, I would not endorse doing nothing this year. Bob Greenstein from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities presented a useful approach on March 24th in “A Framework for Deficit Reduction: Principles and Cautions.” http://www.cbpp.org/files/3-24-11bud.pdf

    I suspect much in the Greenstein analysis matches that from Paul Krugman; but also, I believe some of my points align with other parts of the Greenstein analysis.

    See also the Pew Charitable Trusts March 25th “Addendum: No Silver Bullet: Paths for Reducing the Federal Debt.” http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/No_Silver_Bullet_Addendum.pdf

    In my view, the 2009 stimulus should have been larger and should not have been used for so many things that did nothing — again in my view — to promote jobs — a wasted opportunity. I agree with Chris Matthews on this point, in that I would like to have seen more $ for roads, bridges, etc., with many more opportunities for results that could be seen sooner and projects that could employ citizens more immediately.

    I agree that the GE tax report looks awkward.http://www.politico.com/politico44/perm/0311/no_taxes_no_problem_3d2df655-81c2-4d00-ba64-e32e96f27629.html

    Some of the longterm options I would support for consideration in an overall agreement could include:

    — Not extend the Bush 2001/2003 — now Obama 2010 — tax cutsafter 2012

    — raise the eligibility age for Social Security from 67 to 70 over some long period — perhaps by the year 2060.

    — raise the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 70 over some long period of time — perhaps by 2075.

    — change Medicaid to a Block grant or capped allotment financed 100% by the Federal Government. I still am not sure how health reform’s Medicaid expansions will ever be financed, unless the States are no longer involved on the financing side.

    — Enact medical malpractice liability reform.

    — End most if not all tax expenditures, including the tax exclusion for health insurance, i.e. simplify the tax code and lower the rates.

    — Accept the President’s proposal in his FY 2012 Budget to freeze discretionary spending for the next five years; I would agree to start with the inflated levels that we had in FY 2010.

    — Authorize no new federal grants and subsidies for the next three years.

    — Reinstate statutory PAYGO for all entitlement and tax changes, i.e, the policy that existed between 1990 and 2002.

    — Convert all mandatory non-entitlements funding streams into discretionary funding, thus requiring annual funding decisions.

    The Social Security reforms in 1983/84 and the budget, tax and entitlements reforms in 1990, 1993, 1996 (welfare reform) and 1997(Balanced Budget and Children’s Health Insurance) all required some sustained leadership, vision and substantial give and take. And as you noted, there were good results on the jobs front.

    Best regards.


  4. David Coates: The Danger of Losing the Plot So Early in the Play says:

    […] Reframing the Deficit Debate […]

  5. John Siegmund says:

    Dear Professor Coates,

    Having just read “Chapter 3: The Wonders of Trickle-Down Economics,” I would like to ask you several questions that have bothered me for some time. We agree I expect about the need for the wealthy to pay more taxes than they have paid since at least 2000.

    But how strong is the argument that taxpayers will move out of high-tax jurisdictions into low tax jurisdictions to avoid taxes and that for this reason States dare not raise taxes? Has this argument in fact led to a race of laxity in taxes among the States?

    Allan Sloan recently presented his version of this argument in “Why New Jersey’s Christie and New York’s Cuomo are singing similar tunes” (The Washington Post, March 4, 2011).

    In that article, Sloan wrote,

    “But both governors – liberal New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo and conservative New Jersey Republican Chris Christie – are cutting social services to fill the gap and won’t even consider raising state income tax rates on the wealthy. What’s more, they’re even talking about cutting business taxes.

    (…) As you can see from the pending congressional redistricting, high-tax, high-cost states such as New York and New Jersey are losing seats because they’re growing far more slowly than the national average, and low-cost, low-tax places such as Texas and Florida are gaining seats because they’re growing faster.

    In a world growing more interlinked and decentralized by the day, it’s relatively easy for people to move out of state if they’re retirees or have a lucrative gig (money manager, consultant, entrepreneur) that doesn’t require a regular presence in a high-cost-area office or factory.

    You don’t have to worry much about people leaving the country to duck taxes, because becoming an expat is messy, complicated and expensive. Among other things, you have to give up citizenship and pay U.S. taxes on U.S. income for 10 years. But leaving a state? It’s a piece of cake. Sell your house, if you own one, buy or rent a place somewhere else, and go.”

    So is Sloan right about this tax matter? Are states in fact more affected by a race of laxity than the Federal Government? What are effective answers to Sloan’s claims?

    Thank you, and allow me to add that I much appreciated your fine, thorough answer to a question I asked several weeks ago.

    John Siegmund

  6. David Coates says:

    Dear John

    I imagine Sloan is right. States compete against each other here, in ways that national states within the European Union are now formally forbidden to do: no subsidy hopping as they term it. You can’t offer a tax bribe in the EU to attract a firm from Spain to the UK, but you can certainly bribe Dell to come to North Carolina (and not Kentucky) by the package of aid you offer. As with subsidies, so with taxes, I guess.

    The answer is either states rights (and subsidy hopping for ever) or tough federal standards. Personally, I prefer the latter. We have a common currency and a single central bank. We are not separate national states. We face a global marketplace. If Washington doesn’t unite us, we will all hang separately, to the collective advantage of our international competitors.

    Does that make sense? Please let me know

    Best wishes


  7. John Siegmund says:

    Dear David,

    Thank you for your answer, which I reluctantly accept.

    I also would like to see the U.S. Government adopt standards that would help deter the States’ race to tax laxity. For the moment my ideas are limited to these: Higher Federal taxation, including income taxes, a national valued-added tax, and a small transaction tax on stocks, bonds and other financial instruments, combined with more revenue sharing with the states.

    Alas, it’s a program unlikely to get far right now.

    Do you have in mind others types of Federal standards?

    Best wishes,

    John Siegmund

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