Poor John Snow

John Snow has a lot of explaining to do

You almost want to feel sorry for the man

President Bush wants his tax cut, no matter what, and has launched a full-court press to get his way. This puts poor John Snow, Secretary of the Treasury, in the awkward position of having to explain his dramatic conversion from deficit hawk to deficit dove.

John you got some splainin' to do!

In the mid 1990s, while Snow was head of the Business Roundtable, an association of corporate executives, he argued vociferously against budget deficits. Now, in 2003 as Bush's Secretary of the Treasury, Snow argues that deficits from Bush's proposed tax cuts are just fine. On Sunday's Meet the Press, he tried to explain away his conversion by saying that "not all deficits are equal." Things are different now. Yeah, right! Mostly what's different is he has a new job.

You almost want to feel sorry for the man. Almost. But not quite. After all, he made his Faustian deal, let him live with it.

But to focus on Snow's conversion is to miss the point: Instead of an genuine discussion about a serious issue, we're being treated to demagoguery on all sides.

The Bush side wants a tax cut, pure and simple. It is a doctrinal matter with them: taxes bad, tax cuts good. The American people don't really buy into the notion of tax cuts if it means increasing the deficit, so the Bush team — masters of spin — now call it a "Jobs and Growth Program."

Bush with Jobs and Growth backdrop White House spinmeisters brand tax cuts as "jobs and growth"

Who can be against jobs and growth? Their motto: If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, call it a jobs program. They conveniently forget that what Dubya is advocating looks a lot like what his father called "voodoo economics" — I guess because he (George the Elder) didn't think of it first. Apologists for the President's program, like Snow, claim that the "real deficit" is a "jobs deficit."

The Democrat side wants to portray itself as the party of budgetary responsibility. The Clinton years of budget surpluses are held up as the proof of this Virtue. The problem is that they were dragged kicking and screaming to this doctrine by the "Gingrich revolution," and Clinton, as he often did, simply co-opted his opponents' issue and pretended it was his all along. They conjure up the debt in billions, trillions, gadzillions, or whatever, and talk about "unprecedented deficits." Scaremongers on this side point out that the national debt is now over $22,000 for every man, woman, child in the U.S.

So what's a person to think? To both sides I say, "May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits!" (Someone once told me that that is an especially severe curse, although I have no idea where it stands in relation to shoes in your face.)

On the one hand, I'd like to say that deficit spending is bad, bad, bad. But that's an untenable position to take if you:

  • Live in a house with a mortgage
  • Drive a car with an unpaid loan
  • Wear clothes bought with a credit card that carries an unpaid balance
  • Take a vacation on your credit card, or—

All these things — that many of us have done or do now — are a form of deficit spending. We do it to get over a temporary bump in the road, to get a step up. We spend money today that we don't have with the expectation that we will make it back, and more, in the future. I've done it; it helped me get to where I am today; I don't think I'm an evil person for having run a deficit.

On the other hand, deficit spending can clearly get out of hand, beyond reasonable expectations for future return. It happens when "wants" get way out of balance. It's why people go bankrupt, why some countries' currencies have become worthless over the years.

So, I guess I have to say that I agree with Snow: not all deficits are equal. The argument that the deficit and national debt as a percentage of gross domestic product is still very small probably has a lot of merit. It's probably the equivalent of the rules of thumb that creditors go by, assessing debt as a percentage of income.

But if that's so, why does this crowd in Washington have such a hard time explaining itself? Why are they so supremely inept when it comes to explanations? They couldn't do it with Iraq, they can't do it with the economy.

Instead, they trot out slogans and key words. They spin and spin and spin. Example: "jobs and economic growth fact of the day" A+ for spin. F for communication.

James Carville and Mary Matlin

It's all very disappointing. And amusing. Like watching the WWF. And it keeps people like James Carville and Mary Matlin employed. Now there's the ultimate odd couple! They don't contribute a whit to our understanding, but it is fun to see them try to scratch each other's political eyes out and then imagine what it must be like around their dinner table or in their bedroom.