StanCollender'sCapitalGainsandGames Washington, Wall Street and Everything in Between

Deficit Commission Idiocy

09 Dec 2009
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

Jonathan Chait is exactly right. This proposal guarantees that nothing meaningful will be achieved.


Here's a fact sheet on the proposed commission.

The biggest problem is that there is nothing in the legislation forcing the commission to agree to anything. No target for deficit reduction is specified or required, while at the same time super majority requirements for commission recommendations and congressional action virtually quarantee that it will be impossible to enact anything more substantial than a promise to reduce future pork barrel spending.

I am disappointed that so many organizations devoted to fiscal responsibility have endorsed this waste of time. In my opinion, they are simply engaging in wishful thinking.

Bruce, I think it is "idiocy"


I think it is "idiocy" to reject and persistently ridicule an idea for an initiative offering a substantial positive expected value (considering all potential outcomes -- benefits and costs -- and their respective probabilities) and that has negligible downside risk in terms of costs (explicit or opportunity costs).

If you wish to criticize this particular approach to a commission while supporting (or at least not going out of your way to reject and ridicule) a SAFE Commission approach in general (with up-or-down vote; P.R./public engagement component; etc.) but with different particulars, that could be constructive.

But you seem to be continuing to reject and ridicule the general concept itself ("I am disappointed that so many organizations devoted to fiscal responsibility have endorsed this waste of time."), and I still have not seen a rational argument for your position and rhetorical efforts. Just because an initiative has a low probability of fully achieving some optimal result doesn't mean it it isn't worth doing.

In the worst case scenario in which nothing done by the commission has any positive effect in terms of moving us at all closer to fiscal responsibility sooner than otherwise (its recommendation fails to pass; the P.R. component has zero impact on public opinion; nothing is learned from the process that can be applied later to enable faster or wiser action when possible; etc.), what are the costs?

And if the commission has some positive impact in any of the aforementioned ways, given the huge scale of the problem and magnitude of benefits of even putting a dent in the problem or moving up some fiscally responsible movement by some small period of time, wouldn't even a small positive impact relative to the size of the problem far outweigh the costs? And even that is aside from the possibility that the commission could have an even greater positive impact, all the way up to the possibility that the commission's recommendation could be adopted and implemented to at least a substantial extent.

With all due respect, it seems to me that Stan and you* are not approaching the question of whether or not a SAFE Commission is worthwhile rationally, but are instead being driven by emotion (frustration from past commissions and irritation at politicians who have misused commissions and those who you suspect are doing so now to get more credit for fiscal responsibility than they deserve -- see ) and perhaps an inclination toward showing your "been there, tried that" Washington-insider wisdom/cynicism. Well, if someone had an opportunity to plunk down $1 to roll a pair of dice to win $1 million with a roll of two or win $1,000 with roll of three or four, I could get all snarky and tell him not to take that opportunity (and that taking that opportunity would be "idiocy") because the odds are strongly against his winning (his rolling a two, three or four), but that would be irrational (unless he needed that $1 for survival or he had an even better opportunity for it), and it would be awful advice.

Wish you guys would couple your expressions of justifiable skepticism of a SAFE Commission with (1) support nonetheless based on the upside potential far outweighing the downside risk and (2) constructive suggestions for the particulars.

I refer readers also to and to my quick & dirty compilation of quotes from some of those "many organizations devoted to fiscal responsibility" at

* I'm not including Pete in my criticism because his commentary has been more reasoned and not irrationally snarky -- See Again, nothing wrong with expressing skepticism as Pete does on that thread. I, too, think the odds are against getting even close to optimal results, particularly as a direct result of the commission (i.e., adoption of its recommendation) and particularly in the short-term. But rational decision-making considers all plausible outcomes and their respective probabilities, and I haven't seen an argument as to how a SAFE Commission wouldn't be worthwhile on that basis.

As for the particulars, I,

As for the particulars, I, too, dislike the supermajority requirements (I assume these were included because otherwise opponents to creating the commission would succeed in blocking it). I also dislike the idea of the commission being filled completely with politicians. If faced with a choice between this form of SAFE Commission or nothing, I'd still take it, but if there were a decent chance at getting one more well-designed, I'd reject this one and pursue the other, using this one as a fall-back if better options can't get off the ground.

Recent comments


Order from Amazon


Creative Commons LicenseThe content of is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Need permissions beyond the scope of this license? Please submit a request here.