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Basic Principles, Not Just a List of Numbers

September 3, 2012

Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Simon Johnson and James Kwak’s new book, White House Burning for a thorough, balanced discussion of the national debt. (How’s that for a concise book review?) I’m about a third of the way through it and just came across a quote that neatly encapsulates a point I’ve been making repeatedly on this blog (though not specifically with respect to deficits):

Our national debt problem will be solved, one way or another. After all, even default is a solution, though probably the worst possible one. How we solve that problem will shape the role of government in twenty-first century America and the society that our children and grandchildren will live in. We could have a minimal federal government that protects our borders, runs the federal court system, and largely leaves people and companies to their own devices, regulated only by state and local governments. We could have a social-democratic welfare state, where the government ensures that everyone can meet her basic needs, including subsistence, housing, health care, and education, from cradle to grave. Or we could have something in between. Ultimately, any major deficit reduction strategy implies a vision of society. This is all the more reason why any discussion of the national debt must begin with basic principles, not just a list of numbers [emphasis mine].

The really good policy wonks get this. They’re willing to venture outside of their comfort zone of charts and equations to discuss basic principles; they do not, to quote Paul Krugman, mistake “beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth”; they recognize that economics does not possess the impartial objectivity of the hard sciences.

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