Common Sense And Budget Deficits

There’s a lot to like in University of Virginia professor Sophia Rosenfeld’s critique of common sense in the Washington Post (“The political appeal to common sense is thus best understood not as a call for clearheaded solutions but rather as a form of pandering — an effort by pundits and politicians to channel real popular anger and to lather voters with collective flattery”) but I also think it’s worth emphasizing that a lot of what passes for “common sense” ideas about federal budgeting don’t actually describe common sense:

Do ordinary families cut expenditures when they are low on funds? Then so should the federal government. “To spend your way out of debt defies common sense,” Beck proclaims in his best-selling book. Or as Pawlenty put it in his CPAC speech, “On what planet do they try to reduce the deficit by spending even more?” Common sense is supposed to represent the one set of ideas that all sensible people can agree upon, a collection of truths transcending politics.

Steve Benen wrote about this over the weekend, but I have no idea what this cash-in-advance belt-tightening economy Pawlenty lives in is. If it defies common sense to borrow money, then what’s the deal with all these mortgages people have on their homes? Why are young people encouraged to take out student loans and attend college instead of working at Taco Bell? And when you’re in a thrifty frame of mind and accumulating net savings, what’s that for? Presumably it’s because you think there are moments (bad luck, hard times, promising investment opportunity) when a bit of dissaving is the right strategy. New business startups are commonly financed with credit card debt.

It’s also true that the analogy between the US government and a household is fallacious (the US is immortal, it’s not a self-interested agent, it has the ability to print money, etc.) but it is worth saying that there’s nothing commonsensical about the idea that reduced expenditures is the right answer to every problem.