As a boy, I enjoyed kicking a can down a road. It was free. It was fun. It required only a little skill. It sometimes annoyed people I quite liked annoying. However, no great harm was ever caused. Maybe this explains why, as a commentator, I struggle to be outraged by the accusation that a bunch of politicians have kicked another can down another road.
For the last couple of years this can-kicking charge has been repeatedly deployed, from both left and right, against the leaders of the EU for their handling of the eurozone crisis.
There is certainly a lot to criticize about the EU, but it is beginning to look as though kicking the European can may have been a lot smarter than the censorious critics alleged.
This week the can-kicking accusation has been wheeled out once more, to condemn the congressional deal over Washington’s turn-of-year “fiscal cliff” shenanigans.
This week’s deal solves nothing, the opinion-formers charge, of left and right alike. The left denounces US President Barack Obama for bending the knee over taxes on the rich, while the right complains that all spending decisions have been wimpishly postponed — the deficit just keeps growing and the hard choices remain, the same as before the deadline, guaranteeing fresh battles ahead.
However, are compromise and inconclusive outcomes such bad things? The world is not simple. Raising taxes on the rich may be morally right, as well as good politics when times are hard for all, but the enduring reality is that it balances few budget books. So Obama’s concession on the threshold at which the reversion to pre-2002 tax levels kicks in may not make much economic difference, but it splits the Republican Party on Capitol Hill, which is very useful.
At the same time it gives the president the chance to claim wider kudos for demanding and getting a quick deal. It thus clears the decks for Obama’s second inaugural speech and state of the union address, both this month. These are important considerations.
Even more important is that the argument about the spending side of the US deficit has now been divorced from the argument about the revenue side. The two are no longer held hostage by one another.
This is a major defeat for the small-is-good dogma about government. It means spending can be judged for its social and economic effect, as well as its fiscal impact. And while it would be utterly foolish to deny the long-term dangers of debt, there is little sense in lurching into a severe program of federal austerity right now either.
Balancing any budget is important. Nevertheless it is not the supreme public good, eclipsing all others. This week’s postponement may not be pretty. All the same, it makes sense economically and politically. And since a domestically strong Obama is arguably a crucial precondition to securing better global outcomes on issues ranging from climate change and world trade to Middle East peace, the US budget deal could prove to be a can well kicked.
Kicking the can is not invariably the right policy, of course. If the avoidance of taking a stand were an end in itself, former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain would be a revered international statesman and Roman emperor Nero a byword for wise leadership when cities are on fire. Sometimes a risk must be taken. So it would be just as silly to elevate can-kicking into the overriding political virtue as to privilege spending cuts (or spending increases, or anything else) as the acme of public virtue.