NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Some people want to know, how can the Bush administration commit the moral perfidy of first squandering the Clinton budget surplus, then running up huge deficits that the "next generation" will have to pay for?
The assumptions beneath this question are all wrong. The looming deficit might or might not be important, but it has no moral implications of any kind. As for the economy, the president's performance has not been perfect, but he's done fine under the circumstances. The mistakes he has made would have been hard for any president to avoid.
It would be nice if the deficit were smaller. Then again, borrowing money is, at base, a bet that you will be richer in the future than you are today. Will this nation continue -- allowing for regular business-cycle fluctuations -- to grow richer? We don't really know, anything could happen, who can say, no one can predict -- waffle, waffle, waffle -- and the answer is yes. So, it's hard to get too worked up over the deficit. Most Americans agree. Anyone who thinks that the deficit is hot news in the sushi bars and Thai restaurants of Middle America has not been paying attention.
Facts on the ground: The president inherited a collapsing economy. (The recession kicked in seven weeks after President Bush succeeded Bill Clinton.) Then came Sept. 11, 2001, war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq and consequent huge increases in military and security-related spending. Meanwhile, the president cut taxes and increased domestic spending. Lower taxes were a reasonable response to a slow economy. Higher military spending was the only possible response to 9/11. Together, they produced a fiscal climate that was bound to cause deficit problems.
Today the deficit and the economy have both roared back. This year's deficit might be something like $500 billion. The quarter ending in September saw the fastest economic growth in 20 years; job creation also seems to be picking up.
Let's look at the basic nature of deficits. (Don't worry, I'm no economist.) Some people say the administration, by running up the national debt, is saddling "our children" with our expenses. But if I take out a 20-year mortgage on my house, that doesn't mean I'm inflicting my debts on my children or the "next generation." Nor does it mean (although many people would once have interpreted it to mean) that morally I am a weak character. Borrowing money is a practical decision with no intrinsic moral implications.
Deficits and household mortgages are not the same. Neither are they wholly different. Twenty years from now, the adult population of America will be mostly the same as it is today. Granted, when a nation borrows, some of the eventual payers-off will not have been around when the original charges were incurred. But that doesn't mean they won't benefit from the long-ago loan. Had we chosen not to overthrow tyrants in Afghanistan and Iraq, the deficit would almost certainly be no big deal today. Overthrowing tyrants is a gift that keeps giving. Howard Dean's grandchildren will bless George W. Bush. And if future generations wind up paying part of the tab, I doubt they will whine. More likely they will thank us, and write books about what a great generation we were.
Bush could have tried to cut discretionary domestic spending, and hasn't. Instead, he has signed lots of pork into law and wants to sign more. That's the American way. It's not a part of the American way I'm proud of, but I don't know how to fix it. Somehow I'm not absolutely certain the Democrats do either. If they have a solution, let's hear it.
Yet suppose that, some time over the last few years, Congress had reared up on its hind trotters and announced: We must cut spending, or cancel some tax cuts, or raise taxes in some other way, because otherwise deficits are going to the moon. Most likely the American public would have yawned -- and would have added, by way of explanation: "Listen. On a percentage-of-GDP basis, we're looking at deficits that might rival what we saw in 1983, the worst deficit year since the end of World War II. But what followed 1983? A strong and sustained economic boom, and in percentage terms, lower deficits. So, what's your problem?"