Paul Krugman & Joe Scarborough: Debt vs. Growth- A Question of Priority & Timing?

March 21, 2013

The current hot button debate over our two biggest fiscal problems- debt and growth and how to deal with them, has devolved into yet another needless stalemate in the media.  This time it has come in the form of False Argument, cast as a vitriolic and polarizing ‘either/or’ proposition, rather than a more fact and reason based- ‘both, but when’ one.  In other words, an argument that disregards the element of policy timing which, after months (actually, much sooner), has become clear is key in the discussion.

The Krugman-Scarborough debate began on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and was later excerpted, and continued on Charlie Rose.  It is not surprising that Mr. Rose, with his 50 minute format, can get to the nub and establish as minor differences between two people, what are otherwise often characterized as ‘explosive’ ones on shorter formats. Still, format brevity is not sufficient excuse to not zero in more quickly on the simple, obvious ‘difference’ here- that of the timing of policy- and to begin debate there.

The first 10 minutes of Mr. Rose’s show (including MJ excerpt) contains 3 Rule breakers and, though most are addressed as the show proceeds, those 10 minutes are representative of how this has played out on many others I’ve seen.

The first exchange has Mr. Krugman proclaiming that debt is not an immediate problem, which Mr. Scarborough counters, saying Medicaire and Medicaid are growing too fast.  To this, Krugman aquiesces, allowing for the need for cost containment, but cites the Affordable Care Act as having many pilot projects designed to be testbeds for just that.  Scarborough rejects that solution with: “you and I know that Washington DC is not capable of doing that on a micro level” citing “1993-94 and 2009-10” as examples. This breaks the Focus on Issues, Not Politics rule since it cuts off a politically legitimate and much needed debate (given Krugman disagrees with him) on health cost reduction via delivery efficiencies vs. benefit cuts.  In addition, though Scarborough gets credit for Citing the Basis with his 90‘s & 00‘s references, the False Argument rule is breached since those years seem to refer to healthcare proposals that failed to get passed into law, as opposed to programs that, once passed, failed due to bad administration (or some other reason)- two very different things.

Resuming discussion on Mr. Rose’s show, Scarborough observes: (paraphrasing: ~) “maybe Paul is more focussed on the short term & I’m more focussed on the long term” acknowledging the time frame issue, and seems to reject the either/or (debt vs. growth) premise that had heretofore shaped the debate, as a False Choice.  Progress!

Scarborough then asserts a bigger difference between them: ~“Paul thinks congress can’t do two things at once- grow the economy & focus on the long term.”, then quotes Mr. Krugman from the 90’s: ~”It is irresponsible for government to run deficits because of the aging baby boomers.” (ie. entitlements). Krugman, explaining himself: ~“It was irresponsible to be running deficits when the economy was at full employment, … we missed that window.”, continues with: ~”we should have paid down debt when economy was strong, … now economy is weak”, ~“for every federal $1 cut, GDP falls by $1.50, …will lead to higher unemployment”.  Scarborough responds: ~“The problem of aging boomers & exloding entitlements still exists.”, then issues a 2005 quote by Krugman on the danger of debt & asks Krugman if he’s been wrong for 15 years?  With his use of those quotes, the False Comparison rule is broken by implicitly equating the economic circumstances of the 90’s and 2005, with those of now, when they are clearly different.

As the debate proceeds, it is established that both agree on the importance of growth in the short term, Scarborough contrasting his emphasis on type of jobs programs, with Krugman’s- size. Thus, the false ‘debt vs. growth’ framing of the debate is rendered null, and the real difference clarified:

Scarborough:  Debt planning is needed now.
Krugman:  Any cuts now will hurt job growth.

The debate progresses, becoming more substantive and focussed, with both Citing the Basis of their claims to varying degrees of efficacy (one more than the other, in my opinion).  It is interesting to note that, throughout, the time frame in question (short vs. long) has centered on 10 years, yet when Scarborough is asked if he is concerned about the deficit in the short term, his answer is: ~“not for 3-5 years, but Medicare/Medicaid planning is needed right now”.

This flushes out subtle vagueries that have been lurking beneath the surface and now beg to be dealt with. First, while Scarborough already seems to have softened his position on the time issue with his statement above, by the ‘planning .. now’ part, does he mean congress should take it up, discuss it and maybe even pass legislation now, but not actually cut anything till later?  If so, as far as the notcut part, he is in more apparent agreement with Krugman on that too.  As far as the ‘congress taking it up now’ part, another anomoly arises. Since Scarborough concurs that focus on growth is also needed in the short term, and has called on congress to act and even admitted to Mr. Rose: ~”congress can’t do anything .. look at the sequester”, why did he goad Krugman for not thinking congress can do two things at once, when he apparently agrees with that?  Hmm, a Contradiction?

This was dense going, but my take is that something as complicated as economic policy absolutely requires getting into details, and failure to do so has a high cost. If watching the whole debate doesn’t make that clear (and I hope you do, as it is chock full of information), then at least view the first 10 minutes plus the disappointing backsliding Scarborough did on his own show the next day in this Video of the Week.  Progress made, only to be lost!

We have to remain vigilant, people.

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