An Appropriate Reaction to a Nonsensical Budget Proposal

At the beginning of April, the commentariat was in raptures over the Serious, Courageous, Game-Changing Paul Ryan budget plan. But now that the plan has been exposed as the cruel nonsense it is, what we’re hearing a lot about is the need for more civility in the discourse.

President Obama did a bad thing by calling cruel nonsense cruel nonsense; he hurt Republicans’ feelings, and how can we have a deal when the Republicans are feeling insulted? What we need is personal outreach. Let’s do lunch!

The easy, and perfectly fair, shot is to talk about the hypocrisy. Where were all the demands for civility when Republicans were denouncing Obama as a socialist, accusing him of creating death panels, etc.? Why is it O.K. for Republicans to accuse Mr. Obama of stealing from Medicare, but not O.K. for Mr. Obama to declare, with complete truthfulness, that those same Republicans are trying to dismantle the whole program?

Beyond that, are we dealing with children here? Is one of our two major political parties run by people so immature that they will refuse to do what the country needs because the president hasn’t been nice to them?

But the main point is, what are we supposed to have a civil discussion about? The truth is that the two parties have both utterly different goals and utterly different views about how the world works. It’s not nice to say this (but the truth is rarely nice): whatever they may say, Republicans are not concerned, above all, about the deficit. In fact, it’s not clear that they care about the deficit at all. They’re trying to use deficit concerns to push through their goal of dismantling the Great Society and, if possible, the New Deal; they have stated explicitly that they want to reduce taxes on high incomes to pre-New-Deal levels. And it’s an article of faith on their part that low taxes have magical effects on the economy.

Mr. Obama believes that the major social insurance programs are a good thing, and has extended them with health reform. Some of the best-known research by his chief economist, Austan Goolsbee, debunks claims that tax cuts for the rich pay for themselves.

So what is there to talk about?

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007). Copyright 2011 The New York Times.