You'd never guess it, but very few people in Washington actually care about the federal government's budget deficit. Of course, the news media seem obsessed with the subject. The Washington Post has run 2,310 separate stories with the word "deficit" in them over the last year, according to the LexisNexis database of U.S. newspapers. That's one deficit story for every 10 the newspaper publishes in its front and opinion sections. But this doesn't mean anybody actually cares.
Deficit talk is a rhetorical ploy -- a decoy justification for the unpopular-but-necessary component of both parties' larger political agendas.
How do we know? Ask any Republican leader what they think about the deficit. "Simply immoral," said Mitt Romney, the party's defeated presidential nominee. "The transcendent issue of our time," said Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader. Senator Marco Rubio, who delivered the Republican response to Obama's State of the Union address, called it "our nation's greatest challenge."
Then ask them how this uber-challenge should be addressed. Not by tax revenue, as House Speaker John Boehner has said. And not by cutting the defense spending that accounts for two-thirds of all federal consumption and investment, as Senator John McCain has demanded. Republicans are so concerned about the deficit that they're prepared to offer not a single major policy concession to address it.
Democrats aren't much better. Consider House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's recent interview on Fox News. Conservatives (such as Joe Scarborough) got most worked up over Pelosi's statement that it's "almost a false argument" that the federal government has a spending problem. Scarborough's critique aside, what was more intellectually dishonest about Pelosi's comments was the next sentence: "We have a budget deficit problem that we have to address."
What Pelosi managed to do with the combination of those two claims is to call for more taxes without saying the word "tax." More government spending has all of these benefits, as Pelosi would argue -- but paying for bigger government? Oh, that's a "deficit problem."
Here's what's really going on: a schizophrenic conversation about the proper size and role of government. It's really easy to win political support for lower taxes or for particular government spending. It's really hard, by contrast, to win support for the concomitant part of the Republican or Democratic agendas: big cuts to specific federal programs or increases in average tax rates on the middle class.
Washington doesn't have deficit monomania. It has an acute case of deficit displacement syndrome: a tendency to use a budget shortfall as cover to expand or contract the federal government. Instead of talking mainly about tax increases or cuts to government services, both parties disguise the real issue by feigning concern about deficits.
If you want to argue for more government, argue for more government. If you want to argue for less, argue for less. But don't keep saying that the deficit is the real problem, unless you actually believe it.
(Evan Soltas is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author on this story:
Evan Soltas at firstname.lastname@example.org