The Disingenuous Rhetoric of Balance
Aug07
Culture & Current Events1

The Disingenuous Rhetoric of Balance

S&P has finally downgraded its rating of US government debt, once considered the safest investment you could make. The government’s cost of borrowing will inevitably increase, as will interest rates tied to government securities. And not least, it’s a major blow to American ego. So who’s to blame?

For Democrats, blame lies with Republicans who refused to allow tax increases.

“We need a balanced approach. And the extremism, the Tea Party obstructionism here in Washington, is keeping us from restoring that balanced approach that America has always used of investing in the future, investing in job creation, and also being fiscally responsible at the same time,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Blame Game Vitriol Demonstrates S&P Disgust

So the Tea Party, which wouldn’t accept tax increases as part of a debt deal, is responsible for the downgrade?

Casting the issue in terms of “balance” is a marvelous rhetorical sleight of hand – as if spending cuts are a Republican (or even Tea Party) thing and tax increases are a Democratic thing, and both sides have to give a little to get us out of the crisis. It’s partisan moral equivalence. Sounds wonderfully magnanimous and bipartisan, doesn’t it?

That would be a good way to cast the issue if we were dealing with feuding families. If the Hatfields and the McCoys are fighting over a piece of land and making everyone around miserable with late night gunfire, public opinion might justefiedly tell them, “split the difference and leave us be”.

But we’re not dealing with private families. They’re not fighting over Republican territory and Democratic territory. They’re fighting over our money – and that changes the entire dynamic of the fight. Instead of imagining yourself as a bystander to a fight, imagine yourself walking back from dinner one night when a mugger approaches you and demands your wallet. You decide to fight, and after exchanging a few blows, you realize you are about evenly matched in strength. The mugger, getting tired, pushes for a compromise: “While wrangling for your wallet, I saw you had about $1,000. Why don’t you give me $500 and I’ll call it a day. After all, we’ve got to have a balanced resolution to this conflict, and I need to buy healthcare for my wife. I’ll even give some of my half to the soup kitchen down the street.”

Is this an appropriate situation to which to apply moral equivalence? If you refused, and your fight damaged the restaurant beside you, would you be at fault once the cops came? Would they charge you with being “obstructionist” for fighting when you could have just compromised and given him the $500?

To blame the downgrade on a failure to raise taxes is to say the mugger has an equal right to your money as you do; that there is no presumption one way or another, so whatever stops the violence is the way to go. And the fact that the mugger promised to buy healthcare for his wife would give him even more of an entitlement to your money.

I doubt anyone would side with the mugger in this situation. So the only way left to hold that tax increases constitute appropriate “balance” is to question the aptness of the analogy. What would justify the mugger in taking your money? If he organizes his family into a mafia and offers you “protection”? If he buys certain things for you with your money? If he robs everyone on the block, most of whom readily comply? If five people approach you and let you pick which of them mugs you? If he robs you once a year, but to date had only taken $400 at a time?

Interestingly enough, every Fascist government in Europe prior to World War II came to power riding a wave of support from people who were sick of politicians who wouldn’t compromise. When getting something done matters more than what gets done, the obvious solution is to give the executive more power. This indeed seems to be part of the strategy: if people get fed up with gridlock in Congress, they’ll be sympathetic to rule by executive order. But, as things happened, this solution didn’t turn out so well, and certainly didn’t mark the “end of politics”. The way to get rid of partisan rancor is not to set up bodies with more unilateral power, but to diminish the spoils of government.

Martin O’Malley, John Kerry, and David Axelrod are the problem. Their rhetoric is our national sclerosis; the entitlements they defend so vociferously the very reason we have come to a budget crisis at all. And while it’s fair to question the genuineness of the Tea Party in their budget rhetoric – after all it’s much easier to talk a small government game than to actually do something about it – there is no question whose rhetoric is in the right.

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One Comment

  • 1

    cameron harwick sr.

    Aug 09, 2011 at 12:03 | Reply

    I’m just wondering what would happen if we as a nation did the unthinkable and actually lowered our debt ceiling? Wouldn’t that actually restore international confidence in our currency and lead to an upsurge not only in the bond market but also make a postive impact in the stock market?

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Hi, I'm C. Harwick, an economics PhD candidate in Virginia with an interest in monetary theory, institutional evolution, and folk music.

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