The idea of grand bargains, big deals, and come-to-Jesus moments where our leaders get serious about the deficit are sexy but they are not realistic and quite frankly not smart. Big ideas make for big narratives and great stories to tell your grandkids but the history of ideas is that most of them suck and hanging your hat on any one of them is the surest route to ruin.

Ezra Klein outlines the real endgame

The report’s key insight is that deficit reduction usually gets broken into pieces. “None of the major deficit deals in recent decades has subtracted more than $500 billion from the cumulative deficit over a five-year period,” the authors note. When Ronald Reagan had to reduce the deficit, he raises taxes multiple times over a course of years and spearheaded a separate effort to reform Social Security. In the 1990s, there were three separate deficit-reduction bills: George H.W. Bush passed one in 1990, and Bill Clinton passed follow-ups in 1993, 1995 and 1997.

The wish for a grand bargain that’ll take care of the deficit all at once is probably just that: a wish. The likelier outcome is a slew of deficit-reduction measures passed over the next decade or so. That’s even truer for health-care spending, which is both the biggest fiscal problem we face and the one that most requires a decades-long process of trial-and-error in which we test out new ways of delivering care, of paying for care, of separating useful treatments from useless ones and of modernizing the sector’s IT infrastructure.

Bit-by-bit we make our way. That’s how the future is built.