Why might the spending freeze not be what it seems? (1) Baseline. (2) Logroll.

The Obama spending freeze sure looks idiotic at first glance. At second glance, let’s consider two words. (1) Baseline. (2) Logroll.

Jonathan sure looks as if he’s right (here, here, and here) about Obama’s domestic spending freeze proposal.  It seems like economic castor oil and political hemlock.  (Though I have to claim personal privilege against the Dukakis-in-a-tank shot, in which he looked “wimpy” just because he’s no taller than, er, me.)

But here’s  two possible reasons we both might be wrong.  They could be ridiculous.  I’m proposing, not declaring, and hoping for an argument.

First, what’s the baseline?  Nate Silver, in what’s hardly a pro-Obama post, casually says that the baseline will be the 2010 budget, stimulus and all.  The stimulus is not only big–though not big enough–but contains loads of discretionary spending (as any parent of kids in public school should be told again and again).  It’s probably too much aid to states and such to be politically sustainable over three or four years anyway.  A freeze compared to that might still be unnecessary.  But it might not be catastrophic.

Second, Politico, who should know, opines that the freeze will be welcomed by “Blue Dog Democrats and deficit hawks” (and loathed by liberals).  Now then: could it be that Obama hasn’t been so idle in nailing down the final few health care votes as it seems?

Best case: this is a cosmetic freeze that will provide a few terrified centrists enough political cover to move the health care bill over the line.  Worst case: this is one of the most foolish and cowardly political acts of our time.  The line says that there has never been anything false about hope.  I guess we’ll see.

Update: Matt Yglesias was on a conference call where he got more information.  It turns out that the freeze wouldn’t start until 2012, is flexible in complicated ways, and so on.  He doesn’t have the details.  He’s also keeping his powder dry because he suspects “this initiative was deliberately leaked to progressive bloggers in an effort to get denounced by the left and I don’t want to give them the satisfaction.”

This is simultaneously reassuring and infuriating.  On the one hand, this may be cosmetic after all.  On the other, the wart that the cosmetics are supposed to cover up may be us.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

3 thoughts on “Why might the spending freeze not be what it seems? (1) Baseline. (2) Logroll.”

  1. Update: Matt Yglesias was on a conference call where he got more information. It turns out that the freeze wouldn’t start until 2012

    Actually, Matt says it starts "with the Fiscal Year 2011 budget."

    The Times confirms this, reporting that the freeze "would take effect in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1" (i.e., F.Y. 2011).

    Not sure where "2012" came from, Andrew. Typo, maybe?

  2. Ah, so it's a lie, like everything else. I rather expected that. I don't think it's going to help him much, because pretty much everybody else expects that, too.

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