By James Kwak
Not us, say the Republicans. “We didn’t create this mess,” a Republican said to Tim Geithner in a meeting recently, referring to the national debt and the need to raise the debt ceiling this summer. Yet, as the Times continues,
“Independent analyses have shown that more than half of the $14.3 trillion debt is from policies enacted during the past decade when Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress, and much of the rest from lost revenues and stimulus spending and tax cuts since Mr. Obama took office at the height of the financial crisis and recession.”
I did one of those “independent analyses” (although not one that has made it into the media) myself a few months ago.
To summarize, I looked at five Congressional votes in the past decade that contributed a total of $3.1 trillion to the current national debt. And the fact is that, on a dollar-weighted basis, current Republican senators voted for that debt 67 percent of the time (typically the 2001 tax cut, the 2003 tax cut, Medicare Part D, and the 2010 tax cut), while current Democratic senators voted for it 50 percent of the time (typically the 2009 stimulus and the 2010 tax cut). Note that for these purposes I am not getting into the debate about which of these deficit-increasing measures were worth the cost and which were not.
(I’m sure Democrats are also walking around Washington saying they didn’t create this mess, either, and while they aren’t quite as much to blame as the Republicans, they did their share as well. But remember, the Democrats are the party that wants to raise the debt ceiling, which is at least the logically consistent thing to do when you’ve passed a lot of bills that increase the debt.)
Now, back to unnamed Republican lawmaker who thinks his party isn’t to blame. The frightening thing is, he probably believes it. When people hold certain ideological beliefs strongly enough, no amount of facts will get in their way. If you believe that the current deficit is the result of excessive government spending (passed by Democrats, even though they only controlled Congress and the White House for four out of the past thirty years*), no pile of charts will be big enough to convince you otherwise — just like if you believe that tax cuts increase tax revenues, that the deficit has produced high interest rates, or that Barack Obama was born on Mars, no amount of evidence will convince you otherwise.
This is just fine if you are my daughter, who is four years old — although, actually, she admits it when she makes a mess (and helps clean it up). But if you are a legislator in the most powerful country in the world –and the one whose debt is the definitionally risk-free asset against which the yield of every other financial asset in the entire world is measured — it’s not good enough.