The Conversation

A Better Budget Crisis Metaphor: Runaway Train

If you want to know the sort of nonsense Bob Woodward had to put up with, just imagine this delivered with more volume and for 30 minutes:

Joel wrote about another Sperling appearance which happened this morning but I wanted to add to it. Specifically, I am really bone-tired of this hostage metaphor the left has been using for two years. It's dishonest and the people using it, including Jonathan Chait and the Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky, should be embarrassed by now.

The problem with the hostage metaphor is that it starts in the middle of a much longer story and leaves out a key danger that absolutely must be avoided. From almost the moment President Obama took office, Republicans have been trying to hold the line on spending and debt. The President supposedly agreed with this priority. He came into office promising to cut the deficit in half in his first term. But the economic crisis gave Democrats an excuse to do what they do best: spend like drunken sailors on shore leave.

In 2010 the President created a commission, now commonly known as Simpson-Bowles for the two co-chairs, to provide recommendations about how to get our fiscal house in order. They issued a report that met all of President's stated goals. But the President didn't endorse their plan, he abandoned it. Why? Well according to Bowles,  "I believe it was those Chicago guys, the political team that convinced him that it would be smarter for him to wait and let Paul Ryan go first, and then he would look like the sensible guy in the game." The President did eventually release his own framework for deficit reduction in April 2011 but it had no entitlement cuts, just a mention that maybe he would consider some mild changes to Social Security.

It's at this point that Republicans decided to apply some pressure in the form of the debt limit fight. They demanded cuts--which everyone agreed were needed--in exchange for an increase in the debt limit. Because they couldn't agree to everything that was needed, they created a supercommittee and agreed to the threat of sequestration as a last resort.

If you need a heroes vs. villains metaphor for all of this, a better one would be a train full of chemicals speeding toward a sharp bend in the track over a town, like that Denzel Washington movie Unstoppable. If the train doesn't slow down it's going to fly off the track and kill everyone in the vicinity. But the only way to stop it is incredibly risky. Someone needs to catch the train and start pulling hard in the opposite direction. Is this dangerous to the train and everyone around it? Sure, but it's not a threat to kill anyone. On the contrary, it's a gutsy attempt to keep them from getting killed when it goes off the rails. In this metaphor, sequestration is the final emergency brake on the runaway train. It's not the best way to stop, it will create a lurch that may not be ideal, but it will bring the speed down to the level required to keep the wheels on the track, if just barely. If you want a hero vs. villain narrative for this political debate, here it is:


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