Time magazine (7/8/13) sent former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and right-wing activist Grover Norquist to the zoo. To solve the country's problems.
"The idea was to bring antagonists together in an unexpected setting, where they could work out their differences on the future of the country," explains the magazine's Michael Scherer. The point was to have a little fun, obviously–but there's a serious problem here, too.
Policy debates are only as broad as the establishment media allow them to be. And on this particular issue–fiscal policy, or what decisions the government should make about spending and revenues–the media tend to prefer staying within what you might call a center-right spectrum of opinion, where all "sensible" people agree to cut spending on safety net programs, while perhaps differing on some details about where (and whether) to raise additional revenue.
So Time's selection of antagonists is instructive: A Republican who believes we must cut spending on things like Medicare and Social Security (along with some tax increases), and a conservative who wants to cut spending on things like Medicare and Social Security but without any tax hikes.
As Scherer puts it, "They both favor more free-trade agreements and would like to entertain means testing for Medicare and cuts to Social Security."
Cuts to the programs the elderly depend on for income and healthcare–how entertaining.
Why are these the two poles of the debate on fiscal policy? Scherer explains, "Both men command significant megaphones in American politics, and the substance of their disagreement has huge implications for the future of the country." Norquist is fervently anti-tax, while Simpson
represents the Republican half of the bipartisan Simpson/Bowles plan, which envisions a solution to the current deadlock that would involve about $1 in tax increases for every $3 in spending cuts. For moderates from both parties, much of the corporate-boardroom class and all sorts of Establishment figures in the press, this sounds like a fair solution, given the deep and lingering partisan divide among voters.
Scherer also explains that the "differences between Simpson and Norquist mirror the split in the Republican Party as a whole these days, between a shrinking group of pragmatists that believes compromise is the answer and a growing faction that believes it is the enemy."
But of course, the fiscal debate in this country should be broader than a disagreement between two Republicans. The media-corporate boardroom consensus that Scherer describes as backing Simpson isn't very popular with the public; people tend to want to protect the so-called "entitlement" programs like Social Security and Medicare, and have no aversion to raising taxes on the wealthy or, say, cutting military spending.
And the Simpson/Bowles plan called for deep cuts with only modest increases in taxes on the well-off (Extra!, 1/11), which is why it was so roundly criticized by progressive economists. Why not a debate that includes those voices? Paul Krugman might not mind a trip to the zoo.
Or–better yet–why pretend that Grover Norquist and Alan Simpson really know much about fiscal policy in the first place? The fact that both men are Beltway operators makes them powerful, but that shouldn't be confused with wisdom.