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Uninformed Politicians Pushing US Toward Austerity

If writers at a major newspaper can’t get deficit facts straight, how can you expect ordinary voters to get it?

Some of us had fun with a recent Business Insider poll finding that by a large margin, people who thought they knew something about the fiscal cliff believed that it would increase, not reduce, the deficit.

Hahaha — although I actually have a lot of sympathy for ordinary voters, who don’t follow these things closely but know that everyone important has been warning for years that the budget deficit is Worse Than Hitler or something. How are they supposed to know that those very same people are now screaming that the deficit is coming down too fast? I have less sympathy for major political figures who also can’t get it straight.

As Jonathan Chait, a commentator at New York magazine, pointed out recently, Bobby Jindal — the Republican governor of Louisiana, who is supposed to be one of the intellectual leaders of his party — wrote a recent op-ed for Politico on the cliff that sure looks as if he has no idea whatsoever what is about. There’s nothing in that piece even hinting that the looming problem is spending cuts and tax increases that will shrink the deficit too soon; and his big policy ideas would actually make the lurch to austerity worse.

It’s not just the idea of a balanced budget amendment, which would force harsh austerity every time the economy goes into recession; putting a cap on spending as share of gross domestic product would do the same, because you’d have to cut spending whenever G.D.P. went down. You really have to wonder how someone who’s a major political figure could be this uninformed — but you have to wonder even more about the state of mind that induces a person to write an op-ed about a subject he doesn’t comprehend at all. But this isn’t the first time something like this has happened to a supposed G.O.P. star.

In the early stages of the Republican primary, Tim Pawlenty — a supposedly thoughtful conservative — published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal based on the premise that public-sector employment was booming; in fact, it was plunging. And, of course, Mitt Romney made statements — about the 47 percent, about Benghazi — that he clearly thought were smart and well-informed, but were in fact flatly false.

I think it comes back to the epistemic closure issue. Even supposedly well-informed people on the right get their “facts” from the likes of the Heritage Foundation. Mr. Jindal probably never talks to anyone who will quietly explain that the fiscal cliff is a problem because, well, Keynesian economics is basically right, and you really don’t want austerity in a depressed economy. So he has some vague notion that it’s about the wages of fiscal irresponsibility, which it isn’t, and apparently believes that he knows enough to pontificate.

It’s pretty amazing, actually — and again, it makes me a lot more sympathetic to those confused voters, who have much better excuses than sitting governors with presidential ambitions. Why People Are Confused Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, recently caught The Washington Post publishing an explainer under this banner: “Questions About the Fiscal Cliff: Key Points About the Looming National Debt Crisis.” O.K., if there’s one thing the fiscal cliff confrontation isn’t, it’s a “debt crisis.”

The problem — a political standoff that may lead to damaging austerity in an economy that’s still depressed and in a liquidity trap — has nothing to do with either debt or deficits; the danger would be exactly the same if America had a balanced budget and low debt. So what’s going on? The answer is that the Very Serious People — and there’s nothing as V.S.P. as The Washington Post — have spent years crying Deficits! Debt! Danger!, and staff at The Post can’t wrap their minds around the fact that suddenly it’s a too-rapid fall in the deficit that has those very same people terrified.

It speaks to the state of confusion that all the deficit fearmongering has created. And if headline writers at a major newspaper can’t get it straight, how can you expect ordinary voters to get it?

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