Meaningful budget cuts any time soon are unlikely; Brooks gives it to us straight

Posted on February 23, 2011

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It is becoming abundantly transparent that government spending will not be cut in any meaningful way this year and that most if not all politicians who expressed any concern for the deficit leading up to last year’s elections were solely concerned with getting elected.  In fact, the United States government likely will not balance its budget and the national debt will not be paid down before some sort of crisis besets us and thereby forces the country into an era of acute austerity.

Unfortunately, it seems that our Democracy was not set up for the purpose of fixing budget woes.  Both parties are ardently loyal to their respective bases and therefore only choose to attack the portion of the budget that is consumed by the opposing side’s base.  Case and point:  At the end of 2010, Republicans were strongly against the extension of unemployment benefits while the Democrats were content to let the Bush tax cuts expire on people making more than $250,000 per year.  If either party were truly serious about cutting spending, the resulting bill would have extended unemployment benefits at a decreased level and raised taxes on those making more than one million dollars annually.  Instead, rather than risk losing a bit of campaign funding or a few votes, both parties agreed to extend everything at existing rates and effectively punt the decision two years down the road.

Everyone wants to talk about how big of a problem government spending is, but they only want to cut the programs that benefit the other guy’s base or constituency. It seems that no politicians (or at least not a meaningful plurality of politicians) will be willing to abandon their base and publicly recognize that everyone contributes equally to the colossal federal budget.  Rich people, poor people, unions, senior citizens, George Bush, Barack Obama… everyone is to blame.  Today, finally, I found someone who had the guts to say this, but alas, he is not in elected office:

Brooks gives it to us straight

Is it true that only columnists who are not running for political office can say “make everyone hurt” and get away with it?  Jimmy Carter delivered a similar message to America in an oval office speech saying that individual frugality was essential to America remaining an economic superpower.  You probably do not need to be reminded that Carter was a one-term president.  Of course, John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask not” was received a bit more favorably by the American people, but at the time Carter’s specific reference to Americans curbing their consumerism greed perhaps struck a wrong chord with a nation intent on preserving its “for-profit” mentality in the face of spreading communist rule.

The one advantage to authoritarian rule, such as in China, is that a political regime is able to force sacrifice on its people without worrying about its electoral prospects.  Of course, this does not mean we should adopt a government similar to the Chinese model, it just means that we need to analyze the snares in our democracy that are keeping us from addressing this very important problem.

We need to pass a single bill that cuts spending in all areas.  I do not think this task can be put into the hands of Congress, because no congressman will be willing to go home and explain to his constituents why he had a hand in drafting a bill that took away Jane’s weekly check or killed Jim’s job.

The bill will have to come from Obama and it will probably have to be after the 2012 election.  If he campaigns on the idea that he is putting together a bill that will call for sacrifice from all Americans, I believe it will be popular, but if he releases any details about it before the election, he will undoubtedly lose.  Polls show that Americans are in favor of serious cuts to the budget, but they are not in favor when the the cutting is directed at them individually.

So Obama wins and his administration drafts a bill behind closed doors that cuts defense spending, raises taxes on everyone, increases the retirement age, forces government workers to pay for their benefits, etc.  The main purpose of the bill should be to calculate the cost of each cut to each American and make sure that no group of people is forced to sacrifice more (relatively) than another group.  This is certainly a tall order, but if Obama is truly the transformative leader he says he is, he’ll be up to the task.

When he delivers the bill to Congress (preferably in a public address), he may face overwhelming scrutiny from all sides and his approval rating may well drop off the chart, but at least he will be following through on a campaign promise.  Plus, at that point, he certainly won’t have any elections to worry about (unless he actually cares about Hillary in 2016).

What this bill would do is it would completely reverse the typical debate we see today where people contend that one group is getting off scot-free while they personally foot the bill for the deficit.  Instead, in this case, if any one group complains about the cuts to their programs, benefits, or pay, they will be chastised by all of the other groups for being selfish and asking to sacrifice less.  In the end, when Obama signs the bill, he will welcome the comparisons of him to Lincoln as a unifier of the people, Congress and the rest of America will pat themselves on the back for giving their share to balance the budget, and everyone will admire the glorious wonders of bipartisanship.

And then I woke up.

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Posted in: Budget Battle