The Billion Dollar Man

Dean Baker really hates Pete Peterson. I don’t share Baker’s view of Peterson as an insidious figure, I think he’s a public spirited man who’s spent a lot of money — 1 billion dollars it turns out — on a genuine effort to solve a genuine problem. But when you talk about spending a billion dollars on something, the question of priority-setting starts to become pretty urgent. And I agree with Jon Chait about “the establishment’s strange debt fetish” except for the fact that I don’t actually find it all that strange:

I do think the long-term deficit is a serious issue that I’d like to see addressed. I don’t understand the idea that this is an especially good political time to solve it. While many Democrats oppose any revisions to entitlement programs, the entire Republican party is in the grips of anti-tax dogma so powerful that not a single Republican in Congress has defied it for twenty years. Now, a moment of high Republican hubris, seems like a very unlikely moment to force the party to compromise its core policy commitment.

What’s truly bizarre is this idea that it’s the most urgent issue to address. Climate change seems clearly more urgent — and, what’s more, it’s probably irreversible. The economic crisis is also more urgent. But Washington elites are fairly removed from the cataclysmic effects of the economic crisis — they’re not losing their homes or living in economic terror. And climate change is a “partisan” issue, unworthy of the urgings of a non-partisan wise man. And so, by dint of the peculiar isolation and sociological demands of the members of the political and media establishments, the deficit must become the top priority.

Chait’s sociological observations are correct, but there’s also the small matter of the billion dollars! It’s very difficult to actually change public policy through pure force of monetary expenditures, but it’s relatively easy to focus the attention of the media on things simply by paying people to focus on it. Through the Fiscal Times and many other avenues, Peterson has directly subsidized the production of tons journalism and policy analysis on the subject he thinks is interesting. If he were a climate hawk instead of a fiscal hawk, we’d be in a better place. If he spent a bit less money on his fiscal policy endeavors and a bit more on the monetary ideas of Peterson Institute fellow Joe Gagnon the world would be a better place. It’s natural that the elite would disproportionately focus on something that a billion dollars is being spent on paying people to focus on. It’s just unfortunate.