Erskine Bowles’ 21 Percent Mistake

In addition to my previous concerns about Erskine Bowles’ approach to his job as co-chair of the president’s deficit commission, Matt Miller is adding some new ones:

In little-noticed remarks a few weeks ago, Bowles suggested that the long-term goal the commission should adopt for federal spending should be 21 percent of gross domestic product. This sounds like a bookkeeping matter. But Bowles’ goal would end progressive ambition, ratify America’s declining competitiveness and bury the American dream.

Why? For starters, federal spending under Ronald Reagan averaged 22 percent of GDP. Under Bowles’s view, therefore, the outer limits of the Democratic Party’s 21st-century aspirations would be to run government at a size smaller than did a 20th-century conservative icon.

I think it’s extremely unlikely that this commission is going to end up producing any kind of compromise, but in many ways that makes it all the more important that its members lay down markers in smart ways. We can’t have folks who are supposed to be from the commission’s more progressive half laying out ideas that would simply rule progressive policy out of bounds from the get-go.


My view, like Miller’s, is that “I’m all for ending ineffective programs and reallocating the cash.” But cuts should start with analysis of programs, not with arbitrary budget targets. Things that aren’t worth doing shouldn’t be done. But we shouldn’t simply cut for the sake of cutting.