Pearlstein on the GOP's wild claims on the deficit

From his Washington Post column today:

Suddenly there seem to be lots of people who think our biggest economic problem is that President Obama and the Democratic Congress are about to saddle our grandchildren with a mountain of government debt so high that they -- and the U.S. economy -- will never be able to get out from under it.

Before we get to the substance of the complaint, allow me to bring a bit of old-fashioned journalistic skepticism to the rants of Republican politicians and talk-radio bullies who are trying to pass themselves off as born-again deficit hawks. These are many of the same folks who saw no problem running up record deficits in the middle of an economic boom by pushing through the biggest tax cut in history, increasing entitlement spending, and waging a terribly long and costly war. Their recent moralizing about the evils of government debt has the distinct odor of hypocrisy and political opportunism.

That's not to say there isn't good reason for people of good will to worry about the federal debt. Largely because of the profligacy of the Bush years, the debt is already too big and will only get worse unless we begin to slow the growth in spending for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Let's keep our eye on that big problem -- the $66 trillion unfunded liability -- not the $2 trillion or so in additional borrowing that the government is about to take on to rescue the financial system and stimulate the economy.

What's missing in all this sudden hand-wringing over the deficit is any sense of perspective. Two trillion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but in a pinch we could pay it all back in just one year if we were willing to reduce household and government spending by about 15 percent. It would require temporary sacrifice on everyone's part but would hardly be the death of the American dream.

The more important point, however, is that by having the government borrow this extra $2 trillion, our grandchildren will be better off financially than if we did nothing and let economic nature take its course.