The media rejects deficit hawkery

“The good news is that mainstream journalism has been made more empathetic, and less tolerant of hypocrisy, by the Trump era.”

In 2021, as a rightfully robust debate comes into full form about what Congress and President-elect Joe Biden should pursue and prioritize in this crisis, one species of bad-faith political argument will face more skepticism from the press than it ever has: deficit hawkery.

Drawing on specious imagery of responsible private-sector bookkeeping, and relying on outdated notions of how to organize the public finances of the nation in control of the world’s reserve currency, deficit hawks in both major parties have led the country into a generational rut of zealously guarding against the threat of inflation at the expense of gains in the labor market for working and middle-class people. This — as many hawks who have now, at least temporarily, been converted into doves by this crisis will now tell you — is a fact.

In 2020, the historic increases in the federal budget deficit caused by the coronavirus economic shock and the initial multi-trillion-dollar federal response to it initially stirred calls for caution among congressional Republicans about spending too much in a follow-up relief bill. Almost to a person, these were politicians that expressed few qualms about the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which cost well over a trillion dollars and financed by deficits, not offsetting so-called “pay-fors” in the legislation. Yet with business activity slowing as the pandemic resurges, a few centrist senators have changed their tune and supported nearly another trillion in relief.

Perhaps the most remarkable feat of the Republican Party in the policy discourse of modern American politics has been their ability to convince both a large swath of voters and a significant swath of the mainstream press that they are fiscal conservatives — despite the fact that the party hasn’t had a president preside over a balanced budget since Dwight Eisenhower.

Taking the brazenly disingenuous bait of austerity politics for years was maybe the deepest failure of the mainstream press throughout the 2010s. As my new colleague, Times columnist Ezra Klein, explained back in 2013, deficit reduction boosterism was inexplicably one realm for which “the rules for reportorial neutrality don’t apply” and journalists “are permitted to openly cheer a particular set of highly controversial policy solutions.”

This came about in part because the embrace of austerity was remarkably widespread within the establishment. Democrats from Barack Obama to Nancy Pelosi supported failed grand bargains and more modest successful deals to decrease annual deficits through cutting back on social spending. And Obama did lower the deficit as a share of G.D.P. throughout his time in office — even in the long wake of the Great Recession, when the unemployment rate was much higher than it even is now mid-pandemic.

However, to say that the press was simply led astray by the groupthink of elite partisan insiders isn’t an excuse as much as it’s a damning indictment of the profession’s upper echelons. It views its work as a public service, but it failed the public. The prestige press, in hindsight, is just as responsible for the sluggish, unequal recovery that came about as a result of our leading a national discourse that quickly dispensed with asking how to help the vast majority of people still struggling in favor of centrist posturing that made many feel sober, balanced, and exacting.

The good news is that mainstream journalism has been made more empathetic, and less tolerant of hypocrisy, by the Trump era. A swath of Wall Street has become sympathetic to Modern Monetary Theory. And the Biden team economic team is led by a mix of labor-minded experts who are appropriately dovish about public finance and partisan operatives like Neera Tanden who previously advocated austere cuts to social programs but have since changed their tune to be in sync with the party’s shifting center.

And, crucially, some leaders of the former elite policy consensus on deficit reduction have softened their stance to a remarkable degree. In their new paper, “A Reconsideration of Fiscal Policy in the Era of Low-Interest Rates,” Jason Furman, a chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under Mr. Obama, and Lawrence Summers, another longtime high-ranking Democratic policy guru, conclude that the American government can afford “deficit-financed” large-scale emergency programs and longer-term investments, at least in the near term, because of historically low borrowing costs.

In part because men like these carry so much clout in Washington and New York, don’t be surprised if suddenly the outlines of their reconsideration are taken as a given on network and cable news as well as in the framing of major news stories.

Talmon Joseph Smith is a staff editor in The New York Times’ Opinion section.

In 2021, as a rightfully robust debate comes into full form about what Congress and President-elect Joe Biden should pursue and prioritize in this crisis, one species of bad-faith political argument will face more skepticism from the press than it ever has: deficit hawkery.

Drawing on specious imagery of responsible private-sector bookkeeping, and relying on outdated notions of how to organize the public finances of the nation in control of the world’s reserve currency, deficit hawks in both major parties have led the country into a generational rut of zealously guarding against the threat of inflation at the expense of gains in the labor market for working and middle-class people. This — as many hawks who have now, at least temporarily, been converted into doves by this crisis will now tell you — is a fact.

In 2020, the historic increases in the federal budget deficit caused by the coronavirus economic shock and the initial multi-trillion-dollar federal response to it initially stirred calls for caution among congressional Republicans about spending too much in a follow-up relief bill. Almost to a person, these were politicians that expressed few qualms about the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which cost well over a trillion dollars and financed by deficits, not offsetting so-called “pay-fors” in the legislation. Yet with business activity slowing as the pandemic resurges, a few centrist senators have changed their tune and supported nearly another trillion in relief.

Perhaps the most remarkable feat of the Republican Party in the policy discourse of modern American politics has been their ability to convince both a large swath of voters and a significant swath of the mainstream press that they are fiscal conservatives — despite the fact that the party hasn’t had a president preside over a balanced budget since Dwight Eisenhower.

Taking the brazenly disingenuous bait of austerity politics for years was maybe the deepest failure of the mainstream press throughout the 2010s. As my new colleague, Times columnist Ezra Klein, explained back in 2013, deficit reduction boosterism was inexplicably one realm for which “the rules for reportorial neutrality don’t apply” and journalists “are permitted to openly cheer a particular set of highly controversial policy solutions.”

This came about in part because the embrace of austerity was remarkably widespread within the establishment. Democrats from Barack Obama to Nancy Pelosi supported failed grand bargains and more modest successful deals to decrease annual deficits through cutting back on social spending. And Obama did lower the deficit as a share of G.D.P. throughout his time in office — even in the long wake of the Great Recession, when the unemployment rate was much higher than it even is now mid-pandemic.

However, to say that the press was simply led astray by the groupthink of elite partisan insiders isn’t an excuse as much as it’s a damning indictment of the profession’s upper echelons. It views its work as a public service, but it failed the public. The prestige press, in hindsight, is just as responsible for the sluggish, unequal recovery that came about as a result of our leading a national discourse that quickly dispensed with asking how to help the vast majority of people still struggling in favor of centrist posturing that made many feel sober, balanced, and exacting.

The good news is that mainstream journalism has been made more empathetic, and less tolerant of hypocrisy, by the Trump era. A swath of Wall Street has become sympathetic to Modern Monetary Theory. And the Biden team economic team is led by a mix of labor-minded experts who are appropriately dovish about public finance and partisan operatives like Neera Tanden who previously advocated austere cuts to social programs but have since changed their tune to be in sync with the party’s shifting center.

And, crucially, some leaders of the former elite policy consensus on deficit reduction have softened their stance to a remarkable degree. In their new paper, “A Reconsideration of Fiscal Policy in the Era of Low-Interest Rates,” Jason Furman, a chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under Mr. Obama, and Lawrence Summers, another longtime high-ranking Democratic policy guru, conclude that the American government can afford “deficit-financed” large-scale emergency programs and longer-term investments, at least in the near term, because of historically low borrowing costs.

In part because men like these carry so much clout in Washington and New York, don’t be surprised if suddenly the outlines of their reconsideration are taken as a given on network and cable news as well as in the framing of major news stories.

Talmon Joseph Smith is a staff editor in The New York Times’ Opinion section.

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