Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com.
As soon as the elections were over, a wave of commentaries extolling the virtues of compromise appeared in the press. The common theme is that it is time for Democrats and Republicans alike to end partisan gridlock—to make compromises that will shrink federal deficits without driving us off “the fiscal cliff.”
That said, gridlock has its defenders. They fondly remember “the good old days” in the ’90s when divided government (Democratic White House, GOP Congress) produced a gridlock that kept spending increases relatively modest and eliminated budget deficits.
Gridlock today, however, is not as benign as it was then. Also, the ’90s constituted a very special case that cannot be replicated today.
In the ’90s, gridlock kept the spigot of federal spending stuck at a relatively slow growth rate. Today’s gridlock between the Boehner-led House and Team Obama has stuck the federal spigot in the wide-open position of perennial trillion-dollar deficits.
The ’90s are an inapt comparison for another reason: That decade featured a fiscal “perfect storm” to wash away red ink: The end of the Cold War led to defense spending cuts; the welfare reform of 1996 slashed welfare expenditures and increased the number of taxpaying workers; the Roth IRA legislation of 1997 induced millions of Americans to pay taxes on their private retirement funds up front; the “Greenspan put”-fueled stock-market bubble gave Uncle Sam a windfall of capital-gains revenue. In short, the propitious confluence of events that stanched the flow of red ink in the late ’90s was a one-off phenomenon.
So, we need compromise rather than gridlock, right? But what if compromise is not a viable option either? Compromise may be what fair, reasonable, mature, and enlightened people do; it may be the democratic way, but the problem is that there are limits to compromise, dictated by the immovable truths of economic realities.