Standing Athwart Your Accountant Yelling "Don't You Dare Stop, Whatever You Have to Charge Me Later"

Steven Pearlstein writes:

Let us begin with the budget scolds’ recent indictment of President Obama for his alleged scheme to turn the United States into a third-rate economic power by racking up more than $10 trillion in additional government debt. The evidence for this supposed fiscal treason is the 10-year budget projection that was included in his spending proposal for the next fiscal year.

Do you think, maybe, we could cut the guy a little slack? After all, he’s been in the job all of four months. He inherited two wars and the worst economic crisis in 75 years. And he came to office after an eight-year orgy of tax cutting and spending.

When your predecessor launches two costly wars, and presides over an orgy of tax cutting and spending, that is all the more reason to be fiscally restrained! It isn’t an excuse for spending even more of the country’s money. Liberals seem to understand that “I’m better than Bush” is an insufficient benchmark on torture. Imagine if President Obama said, “Cut me a break, my predecessor presided over Abu Ghraib, water boarding, and all the rest — whereas I just got here, and I really want to kick three or four detainees in the groin.”

Would that be acceptable just because Bush was worse?

Yet on fiscal matters, some Democrats treat deficit spending as a vice that the political parties get to indulge in equal measure—as though it’s a matter of short term political equity, rather than America’s long term health. “It’s our turn to spend now, it’s only fair!” Well, apply that logic and no one ever stops spending. That way lies ruin! The Democrats claim that they are the grownups who can govern responsibly, whereas the Republicans were the spendthrifts who mortgaged our future. Okay, prove it. Please!

Later in the same piece, Mr. Pearlstein writes:

The biggest threat from this budgetary obsession is likely to come up in the debate over health-care reform. Under pressure from budget scolds, Congress and the administration have agreed that any plan to extend health care to 47 million uninsured Americans and reform a $2.6 trillion industry will be “budget neutral” within the first five years after enactment.

There is, for example, general agreement that it will cost $100 billion to $150 billion a year to provide the subsidies necessary to allow all Americans to afford a basic health plan. But the Congressional Budget Office, the official scorekeeper on these matters, has been reluctant to certify the major cost savings that might come from various proposals to restructure the health delivery system, or reform the health insurance market to make it more competitive, or change the way doctors and hospitals are compensated so they have the incentive to use only the most cost-effective treatments.

It is, of course, the CBO’s job to be skeptical, particularly after a number of past experiments in this area have yielded disappointing results. But it is also true that because nothing of this scale and complexity has been tried before, projecting the fiscal impact is next to impossible. This budgetary standoff will leave Congress with no choice but to try to finance its health-reform efforts by raising taxes or limiting payments to doctors and hospitals, possibly jeopardizing the entire project.

We can certainly applaud policymakers for their reluctance to enact another expensive and popular entitlement program without finding the money to pay for it. But it is folly for them to put themselves in a political and procedural straitjacket. In all of history, no revolution was ever made by budget analysts.

Yeah, viva la revolucion! After all, when has a revolution ever gone wrong? No need to worry about catastrophic unintended consequences. In seriousness, this is almost a caricature of the attitude that makes me mistrust liberals on domestic policy initiatives. The author’s premise is that we cannot predict how much this policy is going to cost, because it has never been tried before. His recommendation is that we should therefore go full speed ahead, whatever the unknowable fiscal consequences. Yikes.

And Yglesias agrees.