The latest doomsday machine
They’re baaack! Just about two years ago, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairmen of the late unlamented debt commission, warned us to expect a terrible fiscal crisis within, um, two years unless we adopted their plan. The crisis hasn’t materialized, but they’re nonetheless back with a new version. And, in case you’re interested, after last year’s election — in which American voters made it clear that they want to preserve the social safety net while raising taxes on the rich — the famous fomenters of fiscal fear have moved to the right, calling for even less revenue and even more spending cuts.
But you aren’t interested, are you? Almost nobody is. Messrs. Bowles and Simpson had their moment — the annus horribilis of 2011, when Washington was in thrall to deficit scolds insisting that, in the face of record-high long-term unemployment and record-low borrowing costs, we forget about jobs and concentrate exclusively on a “grand bargain” that would supposedly (not actually) settle budget disputes for ever after.
That moment has now passed; even Mr. Bowles concedes that the search for a grand bargain is on “life support.” Let’s convene a death panel! But the legacy of that year of living foolishly lives on, in the form of the “sequester,” one of the worst policy ideas in our nation’s history.
Here’s how it happened: Republicans engaged in unprecedented hostage-taking, threatening to push America into default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless President Obama agreed to a grand bargain on their terms. Mr. Obama, alas, didn’t stand firm; instead, he tried to buy time. And, somehow, both sides decided that the way to buy time was to create a fiscal doomsday machine that would inflict gratuitous damage on the nation through spending cuts unless a grand bargain was reached. Sure enough, there is no bargain, and the doomsday machine will go off at the end of next week.