To be sure, deficits are sometimes desirable. In a recession, the "automatic stabilizers" (the tendency of taxes to fall and spending to rise) help revive the economy. A deep downturn, such as the Great Recession, may justify extra borrowing, spending or tax cuts. The irony is that the careless use of deficits, by piling up unnecessary debt, has compromised this legitimate role. It's one unnoticed consequence of downgrading the budget as an instrument to force decisions about government's size and role. (A constitutional balanced-budget amendment is not a solution. Even if ratified — doubtful — it could ruinously turn every budget dispute into a legal crisis.)
Kennedy and his advisers, overconfident of their ability to control the economy, damaged long-standing national norms and customs. They didn't know what they were doing. It is hard to think of another policy decision in recent decades that has caused so much havoc for so long. Deficits became routine events rather than emergency reactions. Keynes said, "in the long run we are all dead"; but others are alive and suffer from distant blunders.
Robert J. Samuleson is a Washington Post columnist.
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