It was a big week for budget documents. In fact, members of Congress presented not one but two full-fledged, serious proposals for spending and taxes over the next decade.
Before I get to that, however, let me talk briefly about the third proposal presented last week — the one that isn't serious, that's essentially a cruel joke.
Way back in 2010, when everybody in Washington seemed determined to anoint Rep. Paul Ryan as the ultimate Serious, Honest Conservative, I pronounced him a flimflam man. Even then, his proposals were obviously fraudulent: huge cuts in aid to the poor, but even bigger tax cuts for the rich, with all the assertions of fiscal responsibility resting on claims that he would raise trillions of dollars by closing tax loopholes (which he refused to specify) and cutting discretionary spending (in ways he refused to specify).
Since then, his budgets have gotten even flimflammier. For example, at this point, Ryan is claiming that he can slash the top tax rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent, yet somehow raise 19.1 percent of GDP in revenues — a number we haven't come close to seeing since the dot-com bubble burst a dozen years ago.
The good news is that Ryan's thoroughly unconvincing policy-wonk act seems, finally, to have worn out its welcome. In 2011, his budget was initially treated with worshipful respect, which faded only slightly as critics pointed out the document's many absurdities. This time around, quite a few pundits and reporters have greeted his release with the derision it deserves.
And, with that, let's turn to the serious proposals.
Unless you're a careful news reader, you've probably only heard about one of these proposals, the one released by Senate Democrats. And let's be clear: By comparison with the Ryan plan, and for that matter with a lot of what passes for wisdom in our nation's capital, this is a very reasonable plan indeed.
As many observers have pointed out, the Senate Democratic plan is conservative with a small "c": It avoids any drastic policy changes. In particular, it steers away from draconian austerity, which is simply not needed given ultralow U.S. borrowing costs and relatively benign medium-term fiscal projections.
True, the Senate plan calls for further deficit reduction, through a mix of modest tax increases and spending cuts. (Incidentally, the tax increases still fall well short of those called for in the Bowles-Simpson plan, which Washington, for some reason, treats as something close to holy scripture.) But it avoids large short-run spending cuts, which would hobble our recovery at a time when unemployment is still disastrously high, and it even includes a modest amount of stimulus spending.
So we could definitely do worse than the Senate Democratic plan, and we probably will. It is, however, an extremely cautious proposal, one that doesn't follow through on its own analysis. After all, if sharp spending cuts are a bad thing in a depressed economy — which they are — then the plan really should be calling for substantial though temporary spending increases. It doesn't.