15 December 2010

Trim the budget! Just... you know, somehow. Do it. It's easy!

For some reason, a lot of commentators think that it's easy to trim the budget and eliminate the deficit. For example, here's a video from Reason, a libertarian magazine, about how easy it would be to balance the budget without raising taxes.

See? It's so easy! Look at how easily I trim this metaphorical budget! I just have to cut off pieces! It's a breeze!

If you go to the related article by Nick Gillespie and Veronique de Rugy, where the "plan" is laid out, you get the least-specific course of action imaginable. 90% of the article is elaboration of a standard Laffer-curve argument ("If you raise taxes, people will work less and so we still won't raise more revenue!") and only the very end of it is tagged with their "plan" for cutting spending:

Are our leaders willing and able to identify and cut just $25 billion in waste and excess out of more than $700 billion in non-defense discretionary spending? Is reducing the $714 billion the Department of Defense received in 2010 by a paltry $25 billion impossible? Can Medicare and Medicaid, two programs that are infamous for waste and fraud and cost well over $720 billion in 2010, find $35 billion in efficiences? The specific cuts should be open to negotiation, but the historical record shows that the available level of government revenue is fixed.

Thus far, the answer to their initial question is, well - no, our leaders aren't willing to cut $25 billion from discretionary spending or $25 billion from the DoD. If they were willing and able, they would have done it already and become budget heroes. The problem is that it's kind of hard to identify programs that should be cut.

To wit: if it was so easy, why didn't Reason do it? You'd think they'd be able to spot many of those wasteful items from atop that high horse. Or even, y'know, just one specific thing.

The fact is that there just isn't the money in discretionary spending to make these cuts. You have to cut defense or entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. But no one wants to do that for very good reasons.
  • If you cut defense and anything happens, then you get blamed. You are an immediate and obvious target for an attack ad declaring that you failed to keep America strong. You will be gone from Congress so fast you won't have time to grab your coat.
    But if you keep defense spending at its current levels and just add another few billion to the deficit - well, it's already a huge number, so it can't be put on you. And what's debt compared to human lives?
  • And if you cut entitlement programs, then the hordes come knocking. Remember "death panels?" And that wasn't even a real cut to Medicare, it was just a ridiculous lie. It's really tricky to make these sorts of cuts without being seen as deliberately harming some very large segments of the electorate: the elderly, the poor, etc.
The comments to the articles and videos, of course, are filled with the programs that libertarians think should be cut. And as an example of their vacuity, a major target is foreign aid. Buergs323 suggests:

There are so many unnecessary and immoral spending programs out there that really must be abolished. The one thing you list that MUST go is foreign aid. None of it actually serves the people in need; it and it merely fills the pockets of corrupt international politicians.

Let me borrow Ezra Klein's graph to describe why this is such a misinformed suggestion - the idea that our foreign aid is in any way substantial.

Other suggestions in the comments for some programs to cut have some money behind them, but... well, Thomas Hart suggests:

You could start by making cuts that wipe out whole departments.

1. TSA is worthless, and has not prevented a single terrorist action. 70,000 TSA employees is about 5 divisions in the Army. Draft TSA and put them over in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq doing the work of catching terrorists.

2. Eliminate EPA.
3. OSHA.
4. Dept of Education
5. Dept of Agriculture
6. Dept. of Commerce, except for Census.
7. Dept. of Labor
8. FCC
9. Dept. of Energy
10. HUD
11. Freddie, Fannie, Ginnie & Sallie.
12. NEA, NEH

Eliminating the Dept of Education alone is worth 90 billion per year.

Yes. I suppose if we eliminate almost all functions of government, we will not have to pay for them. Do I even have to go into why this insanity is not a useful or reasonable plan? Almost all Americans support these programs either in theory or practice. A senator suggesting the elimination of the TSA would probably get a lot more laughter than support.

Really, lots of people have radical ideas that might help the country. And some of them might even work. After all, once upon a time Social Security was a radical idea.

But these radical plans are not usually things you can just enact today - no one would ever vote for it. So when you talk about practical solutions to balancing the budget, you have to mix your ideal sweeping changes with at least a pinch of pragmatism. Otherwise it looks like what it is: a facile and impractical exercise in sneering.

Still, I have to give commentators Buergs323 and Thomas Hart some credit, since they were willing to propose the specific cuts that the authors of the article couldn't come up with. Cutting foreign aid would save a little money, and cutting the EPA would save a lot (even if we'd end up drinking toxic waste and breathing soot). No matter how infeasible those ideas are, they're still better than a vague "just cut spending."

So I guess what I'm saying is that there's no easy set of solutions to balancing the budget, unless you're laughably ignorant or spectacularly radical. And for Reason to pretend otherwise just adds to my perception that they're a crew of slipshod louts.

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