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The Incredible Shrinking Budget Debate: Why the Only Choice We're Being Offered Is Between Bad and Worse

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BUDGET CUTS
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We are now locked in the great budget battle of 2011. Who will win, the president or House Republicans? It's impossible to say yet, but I do know who is going to lose: us. In fact, we've already lost. This is due, in part, to the fact that our country no longer seems capable of coming up with anything other than what Tom Friedman once called "suboptimal" solutions to our problems.

Just look at this so-called "debate" we're having. The problem ostensibly on the table is the deficit. But, without any context, the raw deficit number is meaningless. If the country's debt were, say, $50 million, that wouldn't be a big deal. If some average American suddenly found himself $50 million in debt, well, that would be a big deal. And that's because the country's GDP is a lot bigger than the average person's income. So what we're talking about is really the debt-to-GDP ratio.

Yet the debate is concentrated almost entirely on the debt side of the equation and barely at all on ways to increase the GDP side. How has the playing field of what is acceptable in this debate been so shrunken that the only two competing proposals still allowed on the field are the president's cuts and the House GOP's draconian cuts?

Well, it was no accident. And, as it turns out, there's an entire field of study based on the dynamic being played out: Agnotology. Coined by Robert Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford University, the word means the study of ignorance that is deliberately manufactured or politically or culturally generated. "People always assume that if someone doesn't know something, it's because they haven't paid attention or haven't yet figured it out," Proctor says. "But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth -- or drowning it out -- or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what's true and what's not."

Sound familiar? It's the process underlying practically every crisis that has befallen this country in the last decade or so. But you don't need to be a professional agnotologist to see that this pattern is endangering the future of the country.

And here we are in the middle of another budget "debate" in which the only choices being offered are largely confined to which programs in the non-military discretionary budget are going to be cut and by how much. That means almost all the cuts are limited to a portion of the budget that makes up just over 12 percent of our spending.

And the way to enact these "necessary" cuts is, to quote Council of Economic Advisers Chair Austan Goolsbee, OMB Director Jacob Lew, and President Obama himself, to make "tough choices."

But curiously omitted from all this self-congratulatory talk about making "tough choices" is any mention that the president just gave away nearly $120 billion by extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich.

In fact, had the administration done the right thing in December, it would have had the public on its side. Only 26 percent favored extending the cuts for everybody, with 53 percent wanting them extended only for those making less than $250,000. But the public doesn't make the rules for the debate. And so now our "tough choices" are limited to bad and worse.

The reason is easy to understand, concluded Steve Benen in the Washington Monthly: "Pesky Americans may think jobs and the economy are the most pressing national issue, but the political world has no use for such parochial concerns. The establishment has moved on."

But not only are the solutions allowed on the table by the establishment inadequate to the crisis, they'll actually do long-term damage to the country. "Slashing spending while the economy is still deeply depressed," wrote Paul Krugman last week, "is a recipe for slower economic growth, which means lower tax receipts." And, of course, that will mean (all together now) more "tough choices"!

It's a vicious circle. But it's not inevitable. It's happening because this is the choice -- and not a "tough" one -- of those who control our political debate.

We all know basically how this "debate" is going to end -- with lots of unnecessary suffering. Whether we're going to have to deal with bad choices or worse choices might still be up in the air, but let's at least stop pretending that it's a real debate and that nothing else was possible.

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