A single-issue election: Do we or don’t we care about the debt in the short term?

I was going to vote against the incumbent either way, but if I had to boil all my problems down to a single issue, it could fairly be done on the debt.  In the short term, Obama believes it’s not a problem.  When David Letterman asked him back in September “is it $10 trillion?” Obama responded “I don’t remember what the number was precisely.”  It’s $16 trillion.  But like he went on to say, he believes “we don’t have to worry about it short term.”

This is classic can-kicking at what I believe is a critical juncture.  Even if we called it a draw on everything else, Romney would get my vote based on this single, sharply contrasting issue.

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at gmail.com.


  1. Me either. A giant chunk of the debt is recession based, for one. Unless you think recession is the new normal, what’s the point of caring in the short-term? There are bigger fish to fry.

    Secondly — and more importantly — why on earth would I trust a Republican on the debt? They don’t exactly have a good history on action there.

    Heck, look at the debt ceiling fiasco. They had the country by the balls, and all they had to do was agree to a paltry amount of tax hikes. Wasn’t it 10 dollars in cuts for every dollar in extra taxes? And they said no!

    How can you take seriously a man that complains about his debt situation, when his first response is “Let’s cut my salary to encourage me to save more!”

  2. I do care about it. I don’t think it’s going to destroy us in the short-term, but I think we’re at the point where continued can-kicking is really unwise. I get the arguments about a recession (or slow recovery) not being a good time to deal with it, but let’s be honest that our unwillingness to accept any pain is in fact the real problem here.

    • Actually, we’re not. Prior to Iraq 2.0, the Bush Tax Cuts, and an unfunded prescription drug bill, the deficit was what? 1.5% or so of GDP?

      Indefinitely sustainable, given the growth targets are 3.0%.

      Iraq 2.0 costs and the Bush tax cuts will go away if we do nothing, as Iraq and Afghanistan are drawing down and the Bush tax cuts were always sunsetted because the GOP didn’t want to admit the costs.

      Frankly if someone were to go back in time and stab Laffer with a spoon, and maybe kick Norquist in the head, the debt would be trivial. It’s not like we don’t have a ridiculously bloated military budget we can slash (as much as the rest of the world combined), a massively inefficient healthcare system that costs twice as much per capita as everyone else’s to fix, and a LOT of room for higher taxes. (Heck, they were higher in the 90s, and higher still in the 80s….country seemed to do just fine. I think we can all survive under the horror of the tax rates of 1995).

      Admittedly, it would have been nice had the GOP decided to pay for things instead of charging them in the 2000s. Which is a good reason not to let them have access to the books again, since they don’t seem to have learned their lesson. (Seriously, you can’t take a budget deal of 10 bucks in cuts for every dollar of new revenue?)

      • With respect to the budget deal, the idea is that it sets sends the wrong signals. It says that when spenders are in power, the more you spend the more you can keep later when you have to share control. It would institutionalize a one-way ratchet.

        • If we had a two-party system in which one side believed in increasing spending as much as possible, and the other cutting it as much as possible, that would make sense.

          However, what we HAD was a situation in which both parties wished to reduce the size of the debt, but ran aground because one side would not except a single revenue increase.

    • I should add that while I think the debt matters, I don’t see that as a reason to vote for Romney. The Republicans have not shown themselves to be budget controllers since Richard Nixon. (Well, give H.W. some credit, but not his kid and not Reagan.)

      • My instinct is that Republicans are more trustworthy than Democrats on the debt. But my entire adult life experience is to the contrary. Only one President of whom I have memory presided over a government running at a surplus (too bad it’s not the incumbent) and every Republican of whom I have memory racked up lots of debt. I have to say that experience indicates that my instinct is wrong. The Republicans’ bad behavior with debt when given power has shot their credibility with me.

        • My instinct is that Republicans are more trustworthy than Democrats on the debt. But my entire adult life experience is to the contrary.

          Well put. And humans have a very hard time letting empirical evidence over-ride their instinctive feelings about what must be. Which I think explains why so many people still are confident the Republicans are superior on the debt.

          • There won’t ever be progress on the debt as long as Republicans refuse to cut spending and Democrats to raise taxes.

          • Of all the League gravatars sporting sunglasses, that one’s the best (and I’d bet the other guy agrees).

          • Could also say Clinton’s relative fiscal sanity wasn’t his fault given the boom he presided over that had nothing to do with him. En masse comparisons are of very limited value. Obama spent like he did because he inherited a crisis and his program tells him to spend in a crisis. If he is not reelected it will have a significant part to do with the 2010 residual sentiment that rejects that economic program.

          • I’ve said before, it’s a little silly that we condemn politicians for being too”partisan.” When they “get things done,” they’re basically indistinguishable in terms of spending and debt and deficits. Current circumstances has put them in high relief. Can’t have it both ways. Can’t condemn for being divisive and then claim there’s basically no difference. This time, at least, there’s good indication there will be a big difference.

          • Um, Clinton forced through a tax hike over the screams of Republicans who predicted it would end America and destroy all that is good in the world. (Seriously, they screamed it’d trigger a massive recession).

            So, you know, actual reality wasn’t Clinton sitting there getting lucky — sure he had a good economy, but he actually…raised taxes over the objections of Republicans.

            (I might add that the rich made out very, very well despite their higher taxes).

          • En masse comparisons are of enormous value. They are, in fact, the only comparisons worth considering. Those who would talk about Debt ought to first begin with the Balance Sheet. Obama didn’t spend that money, Congress borrowed that money because the alternatives were nil.

            Economic programs, my ass. The GOP has none, beyond complaining about what others do of necessity. There isn’t an honest man among them. Boehner, Cantor and his that little Robespierre Paul Ryan seem intent on playing a partisan game of Chicken at the nation’s expense. Their idiocy has already led to downgrades of our nation’s credit ratings, not that such things matter to them.

          • This pic has reminded me of one of our hosts’s gravatars since it was taken, actually.

          • Edit here,

            I said Tom.

            I should have said Burt.

            /please be patient with me; language circuits are often scrambled. This is why I gave up journalism. Migraine overwhelmed the brain — genetic predisposition + head trauma + menopause = zic has trouble with words most days, now. But back when I could drink, I was smart that way.

        • My instinct is that Republicans are more trustworthy than Democrats on the debt. But my entire adult life experience is to the contrary.

          Continuing to vote GOP is the triumph of hope over experience.

    • As Morat explains below, there is no need for any real pain. Raise taxes to Clinton levels (little pain), make the tax code slightly more progressive than it was in the 1990’s to adjust for the fact that incomes and wealth have gotten more unequal since the 1990’s. Cut military spending sligthly (slow spending onnew weapons systems and stop the never ending foreign adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan) Enact the sort of healthcare system that every country in the world has that is cheaper than ours by 10000X. Wait for recession to end. Deficit gone. Keep rolling over debt until inflation over decades makes debt look small.

      In general, in hard times, causing pain to individuals is bad for the economy, reduces individual spending, which lowers growth, which reduces government tax revenue, which causes more need for pain, and thus the death spiral continues. This is what we see in Europe now.

      We should run surpluses when they don’t cause much pain, i.e. during booms. Cutting government spending when everyone else is afraid of spending is economic suicide and we’re seeing that confirmed all over Europe right now.

      I don’t think you disagree, and I’m sure you know all this. (Stupid Hanley and his knowing stuff!) But I don’t thin intentional causing of pain will do anything but make the bad economy worse, right now. Reserve the cuts for when they will cause little pain and when they might even minimize and lengthen the boom (so as to make the eventual bust a little less extreme.)

  3. The debt, like the deficit, only matters when [whoever] needs it to matter.

    “Romney would get my vote based on this single, sharply contrasting issue.”

    The debt will matter to Romney until he realizes that his magic pixie dust isn’t going to balance the budget after all (much less reduce the debt/deficit [I know they’re different, but don’t know/don’t care about the difference]). He’ll have to decide between shrinking the military or growing the debt, at which point I think the debt won’t matter (see “Iraq 2004”).

    Tim, you’re a smart guy. You know that Romney is a lying two-faced weasel. You know that you can’t count on him to do anything other than help his pals. So, here’s my question: WTF?????

    • If Romney weren’t running to be Bush II on steroids, he might have a sliver of credibility on reducing the deficit. But he doesn’t seem capable of basic math. Or honesty.

      And, for the record, while I think we need to come up with a long term debt solution, I’m not overly concerned about the short term.

  4. BTW, be sure to say hi to Russell on your way to the polls. He and his husband surely appreciate your concern for their well-being.

    • Jeff, I don’t think that’s a fair thing to say about Tim K. It seems like you’re intentionally collapsing lots and lots of very nuanced issues into a single litmus test. I don’t think that’s right. Personally or argumentatively.

      • I think I was out of line. Feel free to delete this comment with my apologies.

        • That was nice of you to say. And fair. If you take my meanin.

  5. In the short term, it’s very clearly not a problem.
    In the long term, it may or may not be a problem but that depends largely on future political outcomes, not on whether or not we “do anything” now. Heck, if we “do nothing” then a significant portion of the annual deficit goes away starting next year (and we probably plunge into a new recession but, hey, at least the deficit is smaller). Your vote for Romney is for a candidate who is claiming that we need to veer away from that reduction (for some good reasons!), if you’re a budget hawk the only candidate I see for you is Johnson.

    On a related note, I read someone ask the deficit hawks a while back to articulate who would see a real improvement in their lives if the US engages in deficit reduction this year or next and I’ve yet tos ee a good answer.
    I think anyone putting forth these kind of claims should be able to answer the question very clearly.

    • +1. Let’s get the damn economy chuffing again. Then fix the debt. We’ve got ten years. No more, no less.

      • Obama can’t grow the economy. His ideology is to keep divvying up the seed corn.

        But you’re correct here, that we can only grow our way past the deficit, we cannot tax or redistribute our way there.

    • Not to quibble Tom but if you factor in inflation the debt is currently at ~negative~ interest rates.

  6. I think you’re wrong to think ROmney would reduce the deficit. There’s just no indication of that, apart from pure rhetoric – and by that I mean mostly lying (or flip-flopping, if you prefer).

    Even Congressional GOPers aren’t inclined to reduce the deficit. Obama, on the other hand, has said that he’ll cut spending at a specific clip (1 dollar of revenue increase per 205 dollars in spending cuts) and the GOP has stonewalled him.

    I think the widely accepted myth that the GOP is the party of limited government fiscal responsibility blah blah blah is one of the most insidious political memes to ever have gained favor – more destructive than any fundamental truth about the Dems.

    • But to answer your specific question: yes, I think the deficit is a BFD. In the short term and the long term. I agree with Hanley that in the short term it isn’t fatal, but failing to address it in the short term means it won’t be addressed down the road, which means … austerity/collapse/apocalypse/fire-and-brimstone/gnashing of teeth.

      • Is there any way to addrees the long term deficit in the short term. I’d say very, very much no.

        Suppose, for example, that Romney 1.0 gets together with Congress and promises to voucherize medicare starting in 2026, long after Romney 2.0 has finished his second term. In 2024 people are fished that they won’t get the same benefits that their parents did. Suppose also that in 2024, the economy is booming (The articifically intelligent Iphone 16S is selling like mad, even though it lacks teleportation abilities.) Someone from the Neo-Tea Party proposes a “patch” that would hold off medicare changes until 2032, paid for with the newfound surplus. Whether people choose to pass such a law will determine whether medicare is voucherized or not.

        Future small changes to SS are slightly different. The government can get away with those changes and people don’t notice to reverse the change when they finally happen.

        But the big “we will pass a law lowering spending 5 years or 10 years from now” just don’t happen.

        Wait for a year or two until the economy is booming and then let’s debate more tax cuts (The Position Jeb Bush will take) with cutting the deficit (which will be Hilary’s position). Of course, Jeb will win because tax cuts rule and deficits drool!

        • I mean “Obama’s position” that Hilary will run on in 2016, and lose to a tax cutter.

  7. Contrary to some folks around here, this old Liberal is quite concerned about the federal debt. If this goddamn economy doesn’t start firing on all cylinders, we’re screwed.

    But the Conservatives around here, obsessed with spending cuts, ready enough to cut the very sorts of investments which would actually turn this economy around, are sadly mistaken if they think throwing two trillion dollars at the military is any sort of solution. Where is the Prudence once intrinsic to the Conservatism of yore? It’s sadly missing in anything we’re hearing from Romney the Borrower.

    And please don’t tell me Mitt & Co. are intent on doing anything about the debt. They’re not. Mitt’s going to do exactly what he did at Bain Capital. Borrow big bucks, enrich his own investors, who have ponied up a great deal of money in this election, and leave us even more screwed than before.

    But, you say, he’s going to fire the PBS folks. He’s going cut off funding for Planned Parenthood! He’s gonna be the Businessman in Charge. Oh yeah. And Santa Claus is gonna bring all the kiddies giftwrapped goodied from FAO Schwartz.

    Don’t believe this bozo. No sensible, self-describing Federalist should take this bozo seriously. He’s a flim-flammer, a whammer-jammer, intent upon spreading his brand of All Natural Brown Sandwich Spread all over your recently-toasted bagel.

    Want an American resurgence? Want a return to fiscal prudence and common sense? Invest in America, with someone who views all Americans as worthy of that recovery. That man is not Mitt Romney.

    • And please don’t tell me Mitt & Co. are intent on doing anything about the debt. They’re not. Mitt’s going to do exactly what he did at Bain Capital. Borrow big bucks, enrich his own investors, who have ponied up a great deal of money in this election, and leave us even more screwed than before.

      And don’t forget his tenure of US Olympics! So … agreed. Heartily. Mitt’s a grifter, thru and thru. There’s just no reason to think otherwise.

      • Doncha wish an Actual Conservative was running for office? Where did they go, Brother Stillwater? Are they extinct?

        Maybe a few of them are still in the land of the living, cautious persons intent upon the salvation of much that is good in this benighted land. Like the monks off Ireland, far from the wars of Europe and Britain, carefully copying the works of Burke and Montesquieu onto vellum for future centuries to discover, they might yet be among us, in hidden corners of the landscape. But they are not visible at present and their voices are not heard.

        Nor will they be heard, not for a good long while, not until the country’s subsided beneath the waves of Populism and the Gospel of the Fast Buck has become contemptible as the Divine Right of Kings.

        The Debt! The Debt! they cry out, as if they gave a damn about the reasons why we came to this parlous state of affairs. They manifestly do not and their every word betrays them.

        • I wonder about that too. Where have all the realtrue conservative gone? They used to roam the wilds and sometimes – often! – take represent those views on the public stage. All I can think is that real conservatism is viewed by The People and TPTB as not enough to counter the Radical Liberal Agenda.

          Myths are much more interesting than reality.

          • In fact, when Rove shifted GOP politics to single-issue value-voting, he pretty much euthanized the type of conservative we’re curious about. They just don’t exist anymore.

        • Tester seems pretty conservative to me. Ditto with Webb.
          Plenty of real conservatives out there — they just got grumpy and joined the Democrats.

    • I actually don’t think you’re too far off here, Blaise. It’s pretty well documented by now that both Parties are institutionally beholden to their respective portfolios of special interests. There’s no great reformer on the horizon. The last one is still explaining why he can’t reform from the inside.

      But lip service matters. Obama got bloodied by making sweeping claims about what a reformer he’d be and then not. Romney would and should get bloodied if he were to get elected and fail to take action on the debt. Obama told America he doesn’t plan to take action on the debt, so Dems don’t have to worry about accountability on that issue if we elect that perspective tomorrow.

      Romney says stuff I like so I’m voting for him. I happen to believe presidents by nature are pragmatic and not terribly principled. People generally don’t care about federalism and limited government when they want government to give them stuff, so presidents don’t usually care either. At the end of the day, these guys are rogues who are mostly unaccountable. Their lip service is about the only check we have on them. And at least one of the candidates will be asking us for a job in four years. The other one won’t need us ever again after tomorrow.
      But I hope you wouldn’t try to tell me that Obama is any more sincere than Romney.

      • If, by Special Interests, focussing on the word Special, we were to consider the poor of this nation as a constituency, they are too numerous to be considered Special. Let anyone attempt to point out how the wealth of America has tended to concentrate into the hands of the few and not the many, it’s no different than the screeching I heard all those years ago from the well-heeled finqueros of Central America about Communist Influences.

        When will the Federalists consider the poor as the most dangerous constituency in America? They’re too stupid to live, no different than the nobility of France while de Calonne was working his illusory miracles for the Bourbons. There will come a day of reckoning, on that you can bet your life. Eventually the GOP’s promises of Pie in the Sky will fall on deaf ears and we shall have another revolution and it will be nastier than any of us can possibly imagine. That little shit Paul Ryan is uttering dangerous words these days and they will all come a cropper, probably within my lifetime and certainly yours.

        How any sane person can believe the Republicans these days is beyond me. Well, I shouldn’t say that, because it’s Wishful Thinking, the sort of unscientific, un-mathematical crap which leads the stupid into casinos, where anyone with two semesters of algebra understands the fundamental truth: the more you gamble, the more you lose. And there’s no persuading the stupid otherwise.

      • Romney would and should get bloodied if he were to get elected and fail to take action on the debt.

        I think you’re wrong about that. And that’s what really scares me.

        • I actually think you’re both right. ROmney would get bloodied a bit on that, but not enough to change anything … except the rhetoric of the candidate the next time around!

          I mean, look: federal spending to “stimulate” the economy, or (what was the old Whig phrase?) “develop and grow” the economy, or “maintain our preeminence as the Global Superpower”, or whatever the hell, is a long and lasting American tradition. The issue isn’t that polticians will spend money to achieve a particular goal. That part is decided, I think. It’s what that spending will go to, and whether it’s an investment that has a chance of being recouped (qua investment).

    • And please don’t tell me Mitt & Co. are intent on doing anything about the debt. They’re not. Mitt’s going to do exactly what he did at Bain Capital. Borrow big bucks, enrich his own investors, who have ponied up a great deal of money in this election, and leave us even more screwed than before.

      I have family in the VC industry. They actually raise money, make investments in start-up companies, build them up, and then sell them when they’re for profitable, and attractive investments for others. Many of those companies are household words now.

      Mitt did that with Staples.

      But that’s not where Mitt took Bain. He morphed into an end-of-the-world investor; reminds me of the movie Time Bandits, swooping in in a crisis and looting the riches just as things collapse catastrophically. He provided corporate health insurance of the kind that says, here, I’ll insure you until you get sick, then I’m taking my profits, bailing, and leaving you with the bill.

      Vulture Capital, not Venture Capital. Growing small business is risky and time consuming. Picking the bones of flailing business, on the other hand, is easy if you don’t have a conscience.

      • so much easier to destroy than create. Long term plan is to flee America, of course, after they’re done ransacking the joint.

  8. Then vote for Gary Johnson, not for another one that going to cut taxes, increase military spending, make ineffectual noises about entitlements, and pretend that the numbers somehow add up.

    • I don’t know if this is meant to be tongue in cheek, but there’s some truth here. The last time I remember the deficit growing out of control and neither party really caring about it, the guy that fixed it was Ross Perot. Or, to be more accurate, he rang the bell so loudly that even though he didn’t win, both parties had to re-prioritize.

      • I might have talked myself into doing the same. We’ll see tomorrow.

    • I’m with the other guys Tim. If you think single-issue voting on the deficit is the right way to go, then voting GOP is a gargantuan mistake. Voting Mitt is an even huger mistake. (What’s bigger than a huger than gargantuan mistake? I think only a shift in metaphors could capture that.)

  9. Don’t worry we can always tax the rich and get out of any debt problems.

    • Who do you propose taxing? The poor? Can’t get blood from a stone, you know.

      Middle-class? Actually not a bad thought — what they lack in individual wealth, they make up for in numbers, but they’re paying as high a percentage of their income as the wealthy, despite using more as a percentage for food/energy/shelter.

      The wealthy is where the money’s at, especially after a solid decade of middle-class wage stagnation. (All the growth has gone to the upper, upper, upper brackets). Last I checked, you could bring in more than NASA’s yearly budget just by removing the carried-interest loophole.

      • I propose growing the economy and taxing the resulting businesses and their growth. The amount you could get exposes the Dems usual answer of taxing the rich for the joke that it is.

        • Let’s hear it for magic pixie dust! It creates jobs, restores the economy shrinks the deficit!!!! Is there anything it can’t do?

          • How many jobs were not created b/c Barry kiiled the Keystone Pipeline or are going to lost b/c of was on coal?

  10. I do but I’m concerned in the way that I’d be concerned about hitting the ground after the car has gone off the cliff.

    I’m not convinced that we can reverse it. The interest alone for fiscal year 2012 was 359 billion and that’s with a one-time writeoff of 75 billion due to the DOD changing accounting methods. So, this year, 2.4% of our nominal GDP went into paying off interest alone.

    Even if we could reverse it, the political will isn’t there in Washington. Even if the political will was there, any cuts that they make will result in the person making the cuts to lose their positions in office by the people harmed by the cuts and replaced by people who will restore the spending to areas that were cut. Obama may be on his second and last term but Congress is not.

    So, at this point, we’re pretty much screwed regardless.

  11. I agree with Tim that lip service matters, at least as compared to the lack of any signal at all that an issue is important. If I wanted action to reduce the debt in the short term, I would be at least considering Romney despite the GOP’s record on the question. In reality, though, we’ll get as much debt reduction as the level of economic growth dictates – Romney’s or Obama’s policies will make a marginal difference to that number at most. And the studies Romney cites to show how much growth his “plan” would produce say we’re likely to get pretty the same amount of growth under his plan as if policy were not to change at all. So I think that where that would leave me if I was a single-issue debt voter (even one who just arrived at that position) is probably thinking it would make sense to find another issue or issues to use to determine my vote, even accounting for the fact that lip service matters to me somewhat.

  12. If America truly wanted to work on its debt problem, it would turn to the engine manufacturers for guidance. Consider the physics of the problem: it’s a literal Bang for the Buck equation.

    Every federal dollar spent has consequences in the economy. Simplistic persons, you know, the sort of people who routinely misquote Keynes and/or Hayek, will say stupid things about Moar and Less Spending. Thankfully, such people aren’t found around here. The truth lies in tuning the engine to maximal efficiency. But no engine is perfectly efficient. Carnot says so.

    How, then, can we attack the deficit without stalling the engine? It’s quite obvious: when the economy does well, we always collect more taxes. Therefore, tax revenues vary directly with the economy. Lowering tax rates is not a complete solution. Nor is simply cutting expenditures a solution. Nor, even, is any synthesis of the two a solution. The state of the economy is our only guide, as surely as a dynamometer is the engineer’s guide.

    To read Keynes aright, we must raise taxes to pay for such things as wars. I refer you to Eisenhower’s Military-Industrial Complex speech in total as to why this is so. First reform I’d propose to reduce the debt: we pay cash for our wars, directly from the General Receipts of the Treasury. No putting wars on the tab.

    But to read Hayek aright, we have to take his Choice Theory seriously. I know, many economists don’t take this part seriously but I do because it’s straight out of Accounting 201, classification of capital expenditures. The federal government ought to consider federal expenditures along the same lines. A capital investment justifies long-term borrowing. Education is one such investment: a well-educated person will pay more taxes.

    Health care and entitlement spending aren’t as wasteful as they seem: those dollars go right to the bottom of the economy, where they do the most good, paying LPNs and orderlies and suchlike. That part is okay. But a thoroughgoing examination of the Medicare / SocSec expenditures would drive out all sorts of vile rent-seekers, I’m sure of it. We’re paying too much for too little to too few.

    The first step to reducing the deficit is to analyse it and categorise it. The old debt, well, it must be paid and it will take time and it must be addressed over the long haul. But the first step in any recovery process is to do the right thing TODAY.

    • straight out of Accounting 201, classification of capital expenditures. The federal government ought to consider federal expenditures along the same lines. A capital investment justifies long-term borrowing.

      Amen. Our budget doesn’t make that distinction, and we’ve gotten into the habit of borrowing to cover operating expenses.

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