[Posted by Karl]
Credit Michael Kinsley for a little honesty:
I’m sitting here in a pile of reports and studies by think tanks, public-policy schools, the Office of Management and Budget, and self-appointed grandee fiscal crusaders. They all make the same, tiresomely familiar point: that this can’t go on. ***
There are a dozen ways to look at the national debt and the annual government deficit, and they all lead to varying degrees of panic. What’s especially scary about our fiscal situation is that everybody knows the facts and concedes the implication, but nobody is doing anything about it ***
And the national debt is just a fraction of the problem. State and local governments, unlike the national government in Washington, cannot print money, and many states have constitutions that forbid them to run a deficit. Nevertheless, they will be losing, together, about $140 billion this year. ***
Debt is everywhere you look. Here’s a short inside piece in The New York Times Magazine about state and local unfunded pension obligations for retired employees. They add up to between $1 trillion and $3 trillion. Until that article, I had given no thought whatsoever to shortfalls in state employee pension funds. You?
Well, yeah. And Matt Welch points out that Reason magazine has been all over the problem. And if you’re reading a conservative blog like this, you probably knew about it from Reason, or the Weekly Standard, or the American Spectator, Fox News, City Journal, the CATO Institute, National Review, the Heritage Foundation, Rush Limbaugh or any of the other right-leaning media that have been discussing it for years, but prominently for about a year.
In fairness, after the Pew Center on the States reported on the trillion-dollar gap in state employees’ retirement benefits, establishment media including Reuters, NPR and even the NYT did stories on it. But it is fair to say that if someone as entrenched in the center-left establishment punditocracy as Michael Kinsley had not heard about the issue until recently — despite ongoing budget crises in states like California, New Jersey, Illinois and New York — it has not gotten the sort of media coverage that might be expected of a $1-3 trillion dollar problem.
I doubt that anyone is very surprised at this, because — as Kinsley notes — we are accustomed to hearing about our public debt and having the political establishment not merely ignore the problem, but accelerate it. If the commonly reported national debt of $14 trillion — and $106 trillion in liabilities for Social Security and Medicare — are not treated as one of our biggest political issue for decades to come, what’s a few trillion more for state employees? However, in a climate where even Pres. Obama’s budget director warned that our debt is “serious and ultimately unsustainable,” perhaps more should be expected of the establishment media.
Indeed, our unsustainable financial situation led to the creation of a Tea Party movement — one of the biggest political developments in America over the past two years. It would seem to be the perfect news peg for ongoing media coverage of our government’s fiscal irresponsibility. Of course, it didn’t work out quite that way, did it? Instead, the establishment media ignored, then attacked the Tea Party movement — first as astroturf, then as racist, as Birthers, as hypocritical (for not having formed when the problem was less dire, and for gullibly expecting the government to make good on current entitlement promises or reform them before adding new ones), etc. The establishment media’s coverage of the Tea Party often seems devoted to discussing anything other than the issues at the heart of the movement.
Thus, the establishment media reveals itself, not as the people’s watchdog against irresponsible government, but as the irresponsible government’s guard dog against the people. It is ground zero for manufacturing center-left consent. After all, how could the establishment have seriously discussed passing the trillion-dollar ObamaCare behemoth, when so much of the funding comes from “reductions” in Medicare and Medicaid spending that is unsustainable in the first instance? How could the media have gone along with the laughable CBO estimate that ObamaCare will reduce the deficit (based on assumptions the CBO admits are unrealistic), if they had to take our ginormous public debt seriously? How could they float an economy-crushing cap-and-tax scheme to combat global warming, or climate change, or climate disruption, or whatever it’s being called today, if everyone was forced to acknowledge how far government has already promised beyond its means?
More to the point, when the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform reports its recommendations (after the election, in a display of the very cynicism Kinsley bemoans), there will be a push for another Beltway deal. The GOP will be expected to accept tax increases (which won’t fix the problem) in return for the Democrats agreeing to future spending cuts that never happen, if past is prologue. If the establishment media had to honestly address the nature and scale of the public debt, it could not take business as usual seriously. But the establishment media is in the business of business as usual, even when the business as usual business is bad. Thus, they stick their heads in the sand, impugn the motives of everyone who does not… and attack the right-leaning media as focusing on unimportant, fringe issues.
UPDATE BY PATTERICO: This is a classic post. I nodded in agreement throughout. Print it out and frame it. I’ll be returning to it again and again.