Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Thomas Friedman's Bipartisan Utopia - Where Everybody Agrees With Him

It seems fair to wonder, sometimes, if Thomas Friedman reads anything but his own columns. He seems oblivious to any opinion other than his own, and recycles his subject matter as often as Richard Cohen. Today's offering is a lazy column in which Friedman once again proposes that the solution to all of the nation's significant problems lies in a "grand bargain", involving the full cooperation of both political parties, that focuses on balancing the budget. He advances the idea by imagining John Boehner and President Obama making statements about how they have made mistakes in the name of their respective ideologies but are going to set aside their differences and find a way to both balance the budget and raise money to invest in the future. Friedman argues,
What’s sad is how much this is a fantasy and how easily — with just a little political will — it could be a reality.
Which, as usual, means that Friedman finds it to be a tragedy that the nation doesn't set aside its differences, appoint him "Philosopher King", and implement his personal agenda for what's best for the country? Jobs? Economic security for individuals and families? Not quite. King Friedman wants to serve you up a giant helping of entitlement cuts:
Let me say publicly what I committed to you privately: I have asked Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson to revive their deficit commission and to use their recommendations for how to cut spending and raise revenues as the starting point for our negotiations. But it will now be called ‘The National Commission for American Renewal.’ Because in addition to the original Bowles-Simpson members, it will include Senator McConnell, Speaker Boehner, Senator Reid and Congresswoman Pelosi, and its goal will indeed be a comprehensive plan for American renewal.
Those of you who are familiar with Bowles-Simpson may remember that, contrary to Friedman's curious assertion that the President abandoned its recommendations due to "tactical political considerations", the commission failed to achieve consensus. Those of you who are also familiar with Thomas Friedman will be able to read between the lines of his column to understand that, although Friedman doesn't even mention Social Security and Medicare, its cuts to those programs that excite him. Yes, in Friedman's enlightened, bipartisan future, the guy who portrays Social Security as being "like a milk cow with 310 million tits" will head up the reform commission.

So we'll revive the commission that failed to endorse, under its rules, its own blueprint for reform. But we'll make it work better by adding Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to the panel, and charging them with both balancing the budget "" while simultaneously finding hundreds of billions of dollars to spend, each year, on "infrastructure, education and scientific research". Because Friedman, putting his own fantasies into President Obama's mouth, is "confident that real tax and entitlement reform will unleash billions of dollars in investments". Best of all, by making Obama his sock puppet Friedman gets to avoid taking any ownership of that assertion - he doesn't have to share with us the location of the magic money tree, with hundreds of billions of dollars ripe for the plucking even in a seriously troubled economy.

Friedman represents the worst of the beltway's monomania about "bipartisan solutions." Friedman knows that the closest thing we've had to a "grand bargain" was a proposal made by the President during the debt ceiling debacle - a proposal that was not only rejected out-of-hand by the Republicans, but which they have used to demagogue against the President for suggesting that such a deal include cuts to Medicare and Social Security. The President suggested a deal that largely echoed Friedman's beloved Simpson-Bowles report, and the Republicans said "no". Even David Brooks was able to look at that and say, in essence, "My party is nuts". To Friedman, though, there's always blame to spread around - if the Republicans say no it can only mean that the Democrats were somehow too partisan and weren't trying hard enough. (Under the rules of this game, the same criticism applies to both parties: If Democrats say no it can also only mean that the Democrats are somehow being too partisan and aren't trying hard enough.)

What about boosting the economy? Job creation? Is it sensible to follow Friedman's approach of slashing entitlements and government spending in a jobless recovery - even if we pretend that the cuts can be "integrated and timed to minimize pain and maximize job creation" or that money will be found to spend on research and infrastructure? Is it credible that the magic money tree, wherever it is hidden, will produce the enormous crop of money Friedman predicts? Wouldn't it be better, from any rational, economic standpoint, to say, "We're right to worry about the deficit and debt, and we're going to work toward a grand solution that will take us there over the longer term, but right now we're going to stop the demagoguery and chest-thumping over budget deficits and focus on getting the economy up and running and spurring job growth, even if that means a couple more years of big deficits leading into our balancing of the budget in a more robust economy. Keep in mind, interest rates are so low right now we would pay virtually no interest on the money we borrow - this is the time to borrow and invest in our futures."

When Friedman proposes a "long-term budget deal", does he truly believe that it is possible to create and pass such a deal? By what mechanism does he propose that this Congress will tie the hands of future Congresses, who may have different taxing and spending preferences, policies and priorities? If his answer is, "Once the seed of bipartisanship is sown by my 'National Commission for American Renewal', it will grow and flourish right alongside the magic money tree, and we'll all live happily ever after," he will be making as much economic sense and he usually does - but I'm not buying it.

I favor balanced budgets and reducing the nation's debt. I thought Greenspan was full of [partisan nonsense] when he suggested that it would have been a horrible thing to reduce the deficit in lieu of offering massive tax cuts to the rich. I thought Cheney was full of [partisan nonsense] when he took the position that deficits don't matter. I thought G.W. was full of [partisan nonsense] when he made his "trifecta" joke about his out-of-control spending habits. But when I say I favor balanced budgets and reducing the debt I don't mean "Let's slash spending when times are bad" - I mean, "Let's act responsibly when times are good, so that we can afford to spend what we need to spend in the face of a crisis or emergency." Friedman finds it easy to complain that we're not slashing entitlements in the midst of a jobless recovery, but he does not appear to have any appreciation of how tax cuts and war spending factor in, and it does not appear to have occurred to him that the party he fantasizes can be a responsible and reasonable participant in working out his desired "grand bargain" has not been fiscally responsible in word or action for well over a decade. (To say "The Democrats have acted more responsibly" is, for the most part, to damn them with faint praise - but right now they're the the closest thing we have to grown-ups in Washington.)

The only place we're going to resolve the nation's problems through principled bipartisanship is in Friedman's pipe dreams. But if bipartisanship means foisting Friedman's personal beliefs on the nation, unless the rest of us also get a Freidman-style mansion, luxury hybrid SUV and Rolex, maybe partisanship isn't so bad after all.

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