Let's Worry About Unemployment Instead

Over at The Washington Post, op-ed editor Fred Hiatt is worried that the political world has stopped being concerned with the federal debt and is instead focused on pet programs:

Mitt Romney would extend all the Bush tax cuts and cut trillions more besides—eliminating taxes on investment income for most Americans, reducing the corporate tax, getting rid of the inheritance tax and more. How would he afford this? Please don’t ask.

President Obama wants to rebuild our infrastructure, and never mind raising the gasoline tax to do so. He would pay by redirecting money that we would have borrowed for foreign wars, if the wars had continued, and instead borrow it for roads. This is what passes for fiscal prudence these days.

Hiatt ends the column with an ominous warning: “If America doesn’t tackle its debt problem, everything else is at risk: economic growth, the safety net for the poor, investment in research and roads.”

Hiatt is exaggerating the extent to which Congress and the president have “squandered” the chance to tackle the debt. Indeed, it’s the Republican Congress that hasn’t taken much of a lead on wrestling down the federal debt. The Affordable Care Act is the largest debt-reduction law since Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget, and if its reforms are successful, it could prove to be the most important debt-reduction law in the nation’s history.

But more important than any of this is the fact that the federal debt is a small concern when compared to the disaster of stagnant economic growth. Unlike debt—which isn’t an immediate problem—slow growth, if unaddressed, will harm the country, with persistently high unemployment causing actual human suffering (high federal debt loads don’t close businesses or fire workers).

With that in mind, President Obama’s decision to postpone debt reduction in favor of new infrastructure programs—which will generate jobs and thus growth—is far more prudent than the entitlement cuts and austerity measures favored by Hiatt. The markets are more than happy to lend money to the United States, and our economic output is large enough to handle the current debt load.

Again, when widespread joblessness and human suffering are the problems, it’s near sociopathic to obsessively focus on the debt for the sake of “seriousness.”