Is the Senate bill fiscally responsible?

Matt Yglesias writes:

The bill contains provisions that have front-loaded positive impacts on the deficit and also have provisions that have back-loaded positive impacts on the deficit. The bill, rather intelligently, seems to balance this out well leading to net deficit reductions in the short-, medium-, and long-terms. The bill by no means solves the considerable long-term fiscal challenges to the United States, but it does improve the situation. If people want to say that on balance they think the bill is a bad idea, that’s fine, but to do so is to oppose what’s far-and-away the most politically realistic way to enact non-trivial long- and medium-term deficit reduction in the 111th Congress.

I should coin a new MR term: the retreat into the relative.  As I understand it, the apparently fiscally responsible portions of the bill come from a) eventual cuts in Medicare spending, and b) rising taxes on some health insurance plans and they come later of course.  Few Congressional representatives are willing to do these things today, so should we predict they will be done in the future?  (The same problem plagues Waxman-Markey, by the way, so these back and forth rhetorical debates are becoming quite common.)  In my view, policies structured in this manner are simply another way of doing deficit spending.

To quote Matt, he writes of: "the most politically realistic way…to enact…deficit reduction."  That sounds powerful.  and in fact I agree with his claim as it is worded.  But if all the politically realistic options make our fiscal position worse rather than better (Congress likes to spend money more than it likes to inflict pain on voters)…well, this bill still makes the deficit problem worse.  Even it is the best of the realistic worsening options.  We should be wary of the retreat into the relative because all the options may be bad.  Nor should the phrase "building a framework" be translated into anything but "we are unwilling to do this now or anytime soon and thus we are engaging in more de facto deficit spending."

The fact that Republicans can (correctly) be blamed for making the bill worse does not constitute an argument that the current bill will make things, in fiscal terms, better. 

Citing inconsistencies of bill opponents ("but he didn't scream loud enough about [fill in the blank] way back when") does not help on this score either.

Another argument I have seen in MR comments is: if we can't solve this health care costs problem it won't matter, therefore we can spend more without making the problem in net terms worse.  That's a fallacy and you would never apply such reasoning while driving over the speed limit ("I'll accelerate right now, after all at some point I've got to slow down anyway.")  Think of it as a kind of Zen-like, reverse Sorites ploy: "It is adding stones which takes a pile away."  Or "Let us add stones.  The pile must disappear in any case."

Here is a numerical style guide (SG) for identifying future arguments in these veins, because they will recur when you have an activist government which wants to be very popular, combined with an under-educated, short-term oriented citizenry:

SG1. The retreat into the relative: "All the other options are even worse."

SG2. Blame the Republicans: "They made the bill bad, not us."

SG3. The critic is evil or inconsistent: "Your views are inconsistent, or you are morally questionable, so I can dismiss your worries."

From now on in the MR comments section you can just cite the appropriate number and spare yourself carpal tunnel syndrome. 

Addendum: Megan McArdle adds relevant comments and also here.


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