But there’s a problem. [Charles] Lindblom’s common-sense insight has a giant exception: crises. Change, forced by outside events, then happens by “leaps and bounds.” The recent financial crisis caused Congress and two presidents to embrace measures (the rescue of big banks, General Motors and Chrysler) that were unthinkable a few months earlier. In the 1960s, civil rights demonstrations pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that, in outlawing most public racial discrimination, wasn’t “incremental.” History offers other examples, including the Civil War, the New Deal and both World Wars. Small changes won’t suffice when big changes are required.
On the budget, muddling through comes with a crucial assumption. It is that continuous deficits won’t provoke a crisis that compels political leaders to take harsh steps that they would otherwise not take. This optimism may be justified. For decades, “experts” have warned of the dire consequences of unchecked deficits. Yet no great crisis has occurred. But this conviction also could be complacency. Government debt is in territory that, except for wartime debt, is unprecedented. We don’t know the consequences. Someday, we may no longer have the luxury of muddling through.