Towards better budget hawks
It's not just Rep. Paul Ryan who's been facing criticism for receiving an award for fiscal responsibility despite making a series of fiscally irresponsible decisions. The triumvirate of deficit-hawk organizations that gave out the award -- the Comeback Coalition, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Concord Coalition -- are under fire, too. “This award basically ended up demonstrating that the various groups behind the award are themselves deeply unserious, more interested in posturing than in real policy," wrote Paul Krugman.
Harsh words. But there's an easy way for these groups to quiet such critiques: Treat the question of whether someone is a deficit hawk as a math problem rather than a subjective judgment.
All of these groups release dozens and dozens of graphs every week. They know full well that the best way to judge a policy proposal is to put the numbers down on paper and then convert them into some form that makes it easy to recognize patterns and assess outcomes. Sometimes, the numbers say what you thought they were saying. But, importantly, sometimes they don't. That's why we go through the trouble of using Excel, which seems to have been designed by people who wanted to punish us. Or at least me.
When it comes to judging politicians, however, all that empirical rigor goes out the window. It doesn't need to. Just as the AFL-CIO keeps track of how politicians vote on questions that are important to organized labor and the Chamber of Commerce keeps track of how politicians vote on issues of importance to the Chamber of Commerce, the deficit hawk groups should record the way every member of Congress votes on bills of importance to the deficit. Use the CBO's numbers, put them into a spreadsheet, and soon enough you'll be able to show whether this or that politician has been fiscally responsible or fiscally irresponsible over the last year -- and your metric will be whether they voted responsibly, not whether they spoke responsibly. Then you can give your awards out on merit, and they'd be very difficult to question.
| January 10, 2011; 6:28 PM ET
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