Johnson ’14: Rejecting deficit-obsessed groupthink

Opinions Columnist

Last week, the Herald editorial page board released a call for greater efficiency in spending, both at Brown and in Washington (“Editorial: National, campus financial models are unsustainable,” Feb. 12). I agree with the board’s call for less “lavish spending” at Brown. It is hard to enter Andrews Commons and not wonder why all of that money couldn’t have gone toward extending need-blind admission for all applicants.

But I must disagree with the editorial’s alarmist tone on the national debt. The editorial page board introduces the topic of federal spending with the news that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, agreed to pass a ‘clean’ increase to the nation’s debt ceiling. While I welcome the news that the GOP leadership chose not to hold our nation’s credit rating hostage in order to score ideological victories, the board members seem to believe that the clean increase in the debt ceiling is bad news for America. They note anxiously that “our national debt will only grow even larger” and that our debt cannot “balloon uncontrollably forever.” They are wrong on the facts, and their preoccupation with the current debt — while very common in our political discourse — is misguided.

First of all, our debt is not ballooning uncontrollably. The federal deficit has fallen every year since 2009, and is projected to remain at about the same percentage of gross domestic product as it was from 1974 to 2013. Furthermore, the national debt would be even smaller had we not fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without a tax increase. So let’s throw out that bit of misinformation, and move on to the more important question: Should we even care about the debt?

In the long term, yes. But right now, with millions of Americans unemployed, infrastructure crumbling and economic mobility at the lowest levels we’ve seen in generations, our first priority must be opportunity and job growth. If we continue to cut spending, shave away at our social safety net and yield to the Tea Party’s intoxicated obsession with the evils of government, we will only further depress the economy and wonder what we are doing wrong as a country.

There’s a natural, human urge to not want to run up big debts. I used to be a deficit hawk myself, like many of Washington’s centrist Democrats. I saw the yearly deficit numbers and imagined myself in an Orwellian future, giving 90 percent of my income to the government and cursing those irresponsible past leaders who had created a huge debt.

But after a closer look at the deficit hawks’ argument — and the facts about our debt — it became clear to me that the hawks are less interested in “saving future generations” and more interested in their ideological priorities: a gutted federal government, a tax code that favors the richest Americans, and a promise that all wealth will “trickle down” to every man, woman and child. This is the same bill of goods that Republicans have been selling since Ronald Reagan was in office, and today even most Democrats have bought into the debt crisis myth. The problem is that their strategy has failed on two fronts. It has not reduced the national debt — let us all remember that national deficits exploded under Reagan — and it has decimated the middle class and reduced economic mobility to a sentimental memory of what used to be possible in America.

The good news is that we know what works to reduce the debt and boost economic mobility. In the years between World War II and the Reagan revolution, the national debt was in decline, the economy boomed and the American dream was actually attainable. What magic potions did America have then that it lacks now? None. The difference is that in the postwar period, we invested in our people. We sent over 2 million veterans to college on the G.I. Bill, we built a social safety net — albeit an incomplete one — that encouraged risk-taking and entrepreneurship, and we invested in our infrastructure with projects like the interstate system.

As a result, the American dream was a real thing. Millions of children climbed the economic ladder because America invested in their futures rather than presenting phony choices between today’s spending and tomorrow’s.

But today, the nation is petrified of the debt thanks to the chilling warnings of deficit hawks. They sell a message of fear, and they sell it well. “We need to cut spending today so that our children don’t have to!” They have even managed to convince students at Brown that there is a contest between generations in the debate over the national debt.

There is now a group on campus called Common Sense Action, whose stated mission is to advocate for “generational fairness.” It came in second place in a contest funded by Peter G. Peterson, a billionaire whose ideas for reforming Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security would “strike deeply at the middle class,” according to the Los Angeles Times. CSA advocates for what it sees as nonpartisan policies promoting fiscal responsibility, and believes that conservatives and liberals should be able to agree on pragmatic solutions to reduce our debt. Fortunately, and likely to the chagrin of people like Peterson, CSA has shifted its focus away from the deficit and onto more worthy goals, like economic mobility and repairing politics. CSA deserves credit for these changes, but the fact remains that there are broad swaths of the public that have been sold on the deficit myth.

That brings me back to the Herald editorial page board, which urges readers to avoid “entangling ourselves” in the “bitter and entrenched philosophical debates” over the size and scope of government. The problem is that those “bitter and entrenched” debates are important, and they are worth having. The fact that groups like CSA, the editorial page board, and much of the country’s political center have bought into this deficit-obsessed groupthink shows the power that billionaires like Peterson have to influence our politics.

I don’t question the intent of the board or of moderates who have been sold the deficit hawk myth. I’m sure that they believe what they are doing is right, and that they see the national debt as an urgent crisis that demands our attention. But I fundamentally disagree. With millions out of work, billions of dollars in unmet infrastructure needs and a social safety net that is under attack from politicians in both parties, the deficit should not be at the top of America’s priorities list. Rather than continuing with the deficit hawks’ failing policies, let’s invest in our people today so that tomorrow brings a brighter future.


Garret Johnson ’14 is a former Herald opinions editor. His columns appear on alternate Wednesdays. He can be reached at

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  1. BDH opinions writers need to stop suggesting the fallacy that if Andrews Commons had not been built, financial aid would be improved. Let’s think about this analytically. Assuming that the university spend ~5 million on Andrews, and that this cost was debt financed at a 4% interest rate, Andrews has ~ a 200k impact on the annual operating budget. In order to make significant improvements in financial aid such as universal need blind admission, the cost to the operating budget would be in the tens of millions of dollars, a full TWO orders of magnitude difference from the impact of Andrews Commons. If this money had gone to financial aid, there would have been no discernible impact on the university’s policies.

    • Daniel Moraff says:

      “Anon”: Andrews was folded into a $56 million dollar project, some of which could be classified as state of good repair, some of which went above and beyond (who knows how much, seeing as how there’s virtually no transparency). Capital spending is a real pit; Andrews is just a particularly egregious case.

      • Daniel, do we need to wait for a student to actually die from a fallen ceiling in a dorm to see a need for capital improvements? How do you suppose the University can continue to attract students from all walks if adequate facilities aren’t even in place? With the slow and steady attrition of the Open Curriculum via WRIT and soon a data analysis requirement, what else is special about Brown? The weather? The wonderful city of Providence? Kennedy Plaza? Buskers on Thayer?

        The issue with Andrews is that it’s a particularly egregious case of Brown spending money and getting an inadequate product–the space is not great functionally speaking. It’s a case of the inadequacy of our administrators, the lack of any leadership with vision, the inefficacy of Brown.

        When Anon points out the fiscal reality, your response is ineffectual. The syllogism you tenuously first tried to argue (Andrews means money spent, money spent means less for FinAid, Less for FinAid means Andrews is a waste) was disproved. However, you have found a rather good vantage point from which to criticize the deeper seated issues that will bury Brown for good and for all if unanswered. I hope you can regroup and find a more effective tactic.

        • Daniel Moraff says:

          “Some of which could be classified as state of good repair.” Ceilings falling is good repair.

          The capital budget is a part of “fiscal reality”, as is admin spending, as is engineering expansion.

          • Most buildings are not built to last forever, repaired or not. Trying to do so usually costs more than demolition and building two new ones. Some are worth it, but most are not. One needs to look at the insane costs of owning an historically zoned home in East Providence to understand how untenable your position is.

          • Daniel Moraff says:

            So let’s talk that $56 mil project. If it’s not a full redesign of dorm space, if it’s making sure the roof doesn’t fall down? Andrews (the whole dorm) is 60 years old. A 60 year old building is not cheaper to eviscerate and redesign then renovate. Same goes for the Ratty, for the old pool, etc.

            So how much do we save if the U adopts a general philosophy of constraining capital spending to maintenance and actual space needs? Hard to say, because, again, no transparency. But what do see suggests we could shave more than a few percentage points off capital spending. Bringing up a “historically zoned home in East Providence,” in which case we’re talking hundreds of years

          • Daniel Moraff says:

            –is nonsensical.

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