Since when does each and every budget policy proposal have to singlehandedly eliminate the deficit?

In all seriousness, when did singlehandedly “fixing the deficit” become a necessary criterion for each and every tax and budget policy proposal? David Fahrenthold and David Nakamura invoke this strange new rule in an article in today’s Washington Post.

“Neither [the Paul Ryan budget nor the Buffett Rule] will fix the deficit problem anytime soon: The GOP’s proposal wouldn’t balance the budget until 2040. By itself, the Buffett Rule wouldn’t do it ever.”

There is a lot wrong in this sentence.

First, comparing a comprehensive budget proposal to a single tax reform is an apples-to-oranges (or apple-to-bushel-of-apples) comparison. Second, the Ryan budget doesn’t actually balance the budget until … well ever. The too-often cited Congressional Budget Office’s long-term analysis evoked here is based on the false premise that revenue will magically hold at 19 percent of GDP, ignoring the trillions of dollars of budget-busting, gimmicky tax cuts (Ryan assures that this money and more can be made up by “broadening the base” of taxation but offers no specifics). Lastly, nobody invokes the Buffett Rule as the single instrument for balancing the budget—very few fiscal policies have that reach. Take an extreme example: Immediately abolishing the Department of Defense would not balance the budget within a decade, relative to current policies. That’s besides the point–cutting more than $7 trillion in non-interest spending over a decade would produce a sustainable fiscal trajectory (ignoring sizable second-order cyclical budget effects from the massive hit to aggregate demand). The trajectory for debt held by the public is the relevant metric of fiscal sustainability, not a binary for budget deficit/budget surplus.

Fahrenthold and Nakamura double-down on brushing off non-trivial budgetary savings, also missing the broader fiscal implications of the Buffett Rule: “Even if it passed, the [Buffett Rule] would not likely make a serious dent in the country’s deficit. It might add up to $162 billion over 10 years. The national debt grows fast enough to wipe that out within two months.”

So $162 billion in budgetary savings is something to laugh at? I’ll remember that next time conservatives propose to reduce the deficit by drug-testing unemployment insurance recipients, eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, or defunding Planned Parenthood. To be more concrete, these savings would more than supplant the draconian $134 billion 10-year cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) proposed in the Ryan budget.

Further, the criticism that $162 billion is dwarfed by this year’s budget deficit is doubly misleading. For one, budget deficits have swelled in recent years because the economy is so weak. Comparing a 10-year cost-estimate of just about anything to the sizable but cyclical budget deficits spurred by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression is unhelpful. Further, policymakers shouldn’t be concerned at all with reducing this year’s budget deficit; serious concerns about budget imbalance are about stabilizing debt in the medium and long-term, after the economy has recovered. Revenue from implementing the Buffett Rule would be weighted toward the out years, where savings will be larger relative to projected budget deficits than today, and that’s exactly how it should be.

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) echoed this very same misguided sentiment in a statement on the Buffett Rule: “The President’s so-called Buffett Rule is a dog that just won’t hunt. It was designed for no other reason than politics – there is no economic rationale for it. It would do little to bring down the debt…” This specious “if it doesn’t fix the entire problem, it’s not worth doing,” objection to raising more revenue and increasing tax progressivity was similarly trotted out in defense of the upper-income Bush-era tax cuts, the expiration of which would raise $849 billion over a decade. Luckily, Jon Stewart decided to smack at this bad argument. He probably won’t have time to go after this latest Washington Post article, which is a shame because it’s about as silly.