When Numbers Get Unserious

Are substantial budget cuts automatically "untenable"?

"The challenge for the president," The New York Times reported before last night's State of the Union address, "is to convince independents and centrists of his fiscal responsibility without further alienating his base." President Obama tried to accomplish this feat by calling the spending he favors an "investment" and portraying its opponents as shortsighted misers.

Obama depicts budget cutters as panicky passengers "trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing its engine," a metaphor that transforms frugality into a vice and makes continuing to spend money we don't have seem like the only responsible course. This inversion of values is facilitated by the self-fulfilling conventional wisdom that serious spending cuts are unserious because no one will take them seriously.

According to this view, epitomized by the Times, only rubes imagine that the budget can be balanced by reducing expenditures, while fiscal sophisticates understand the need to carry on as usual, despite a $1.4 trillion deficit and a $14 trillion debt. "Where Republicans campaigned on a theme of deep reductions in federal spending," the Times said, "Mr. Obama is trying to sell the public a more nuanced, gradual approach….The challenge for Republicans is to press their case for spending cuts without appearing dogmatic and irresponsible."

Far from seeming ideologically rigid, Republican leaders in the House are showing so much flexibility that it's not clear they have any backbone at all. In their Pledge to America last September, they promised to "roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone." Before the new Congress had even convened, that number, which represents just 2.6 percent of the $3.8 trillion budget, had been cut in half.

On Meet the Press this week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) explained that the downsizing promise had to be downsized because legislators are starting to discuss cuts "five months into the fiscal year." Evidently Republicans did not realize until after the elections that the current fiscal year began in October.

Still, Cantor said Republicans are committed to hitting their original target "on an annualized basis." By that standard, if they do nothing until September, they can make $8.3 billion in cuts and declare their mission accomplished—on an annualized basis.

To his credit, Cantor said military programs should not be immune from cuts. But if so, why did the Pledge to America treat defense and homeland security spending, along with entitlements, as sacrosanct?

Operating within those parameters (which take most of the budget off the table), the Republican Study Committee last week proposed $2.5 trillion in spending reductions over the next decade. The plan identifies "more than 100" specific cuts, ranging from small but symbolically potent items such as mohair subsidies and the National Endowment for the Arts to bigger yet equally unjustified programs such as community development grants and taxpayer support for Amtrak. But it relies mainly on freezing nondefense discretionary spending at 2006 levels, with the details to be worked out later.

"Some fiscal experts said the proposal was untenable," the Times reported, "because it would cut much of the federal government nearly in half by 2020, including agencies like the Education Department." By this counterintuitive standard, borrowing money to more than double the department's funding from 2001 to 2010 was tenable, while cutting it by less than half from 2011 to 2020 is not.

But since the Education Department, like much that the federal government does, is not constitutionally authorized, why stop at shrinking it? This month freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Tea Party favorite, plans to unveil federal spending cuts "all across the board'' that total $500 billion in the first year alone. The Louisville Courier-Journal says it "appears likely, based on past comments, that Paul will seek to eliminate the Department of Education." That rustling sound you hear is New York Times reporters leafing through their thesauruses, looking for a dismissive adjective stronger than untenable.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • Suki||

    Senate: it is your turn to pass the ObamaCare repeal.

    Good morning reason!

  • Rather||

    Good Morning Suki,
    Sleepover soon?

    The first annual RandyAyndy Awards

  • testinside||

  • Johnny Longtorso||

    THIS gets thru the spam filter?

  • ||

    And links to The Economist and The National Post are routinely filtered. Reason has the worst IT support of any journalistic website.

  • ||

    Hmmm! Methinks you don't get around on the web much. I've seen worse.

  • Meh||

    I wouldn't mind the spam filter so much if it didn't eat your post so you can't even edit and resubmit.

  • testinside||

  • testinside||

  • Alan Vanneman||

    "Thesauruses"! I like that! Thanks for not going for "thesauri". When I was a kid I thought a thesaurus ought to be a dinosaur and I felt cheated that it wasn't.

  • Realist||

    What's another name for Thesauruses?

  • ||

    Doubletalk.

  • Nerd||

    synonym dictionary

  • ||

    But we can't go back to 2006 spending levels. Doesn't anyone remember 2006? The country was like Somalia back then.

  • Johnny Longtorso||

    Somalia without ROADZ!!!!

  • Vermont Gun Owner||

    I remember I gave a speech at graduation that year. I had to have it drawn out in pictures, given how poor high school funding was then.

  • Spartacus||

    Obama depicts budget cutters as panicky passengers "trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing its engine," ...

    Obama, on the other hand, sees the plane nosing downward and calls for full throttle.

  • ||

    I thought it was a car in the ditch?

  • Sovereign Immunity||

    He has to use a new metaphor, John. Too close to the The Volt being foisted on the public.

  • ||

    Has anybody bought one of those things anyway? Anybody know anybody who has? Opinions?

  • Realist||

    How is the air conditioner? Heater?

  • ||

    I would just want a rear window defroster so your hands would stay warm when you're pushing it down the road.

    I read a funny NYT review someone linked from here. Basically the review said it was a cramped, unresponsive, cheaply built POS but tried very hard to put a positive spin on it.

  • Realist||

    I have never been able to find out if the ALL electric cars have an air conditioner or heater.

  • ||

    They're reportedly selling out fast for $4K-$5K above MSRP.

  • ||

    Wonder how long it will be until we see a headline along the lines of "Volt slides into ditch, occupants elctrocuted"?

  • Mike in PA||

    You're just not looking far enough ahead. Not surprising for such a small-minded uneducated person such as yourself... The plan is to fly the plane so fast through the earth that it comes out the other side.

  • Sovereign Immunity||

    Is that how China got those plane parts?

  • d||

    And Obama will simply repeal the 'Law of Gravity' so the momentum gained dropping to the center of the Earth won't be lost on the trip to the other side of the Earth.

    Just like the Democrats can repeal the laws of economics, medicine, thermodynamics (they can create electric cars that can be charges without forcing utilities to burn more coal) etc. because they are just old racist laws that Congress must change.

  • Realist||

    Obama "sees" nothing. He's a sack of shit with big ears.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Obama depicts budget cutters as panicky passengers "trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing its engine," ...

    Because the government is the engine that makes the country go, right?

  • ||

    Obabama thinks gov spending is the engine? I'll have to look that up is the analsaurus.

  • ||

    From someone named Kirby Olsen commenting at Althouse. Nothing to do with this thread. But a great comment.

    Academic Marxists are vampyres who don't know they're dead. They live off the blood of the millions who went through the Gulags.

  • ||

    The principal difference between being a sad leftover Marxist and being a sad leftover Nazi is that to get away with being a Nazi on a college campus you have to be something other than caucasian.

  • Mike in PA||

    Hey, is anyone else more concerned about the part of the speech where Obama called for a complete restructure of the US government? I mean, I think it needs to be restructured (or rather, de-structured), but does anyone have any concerns about how Obama would like to restructure the entire federal government? That sounds pretty scary to me.

  • Jen||

    That sounds like the usual empty "ending business as usual" rhetoric to me. It won't amount to anything. Now, if he changes the name of his position to Chancellor and eliminates his own term limit, it's time to be scared.

  • ||

    Yeah, they are always going to reinvent government.

  • Wind Rider||

    His whole re-invention of government schtick makes me recall what would happen when, while I was assigned to a military HQ, we'd get some slug who'd been promoted to his highest level of imcompetence, and had no imagination, vision, or ideas. To look busy and/or effective, they would commence to basically re-arrange all the deck chairs - renaming various parts and pieces of the staff, thus ensuring everyone was as confused as the moron that thought it was a good idea. If the example holds true, Skippy's 'solution will in fact expand the number of government workers, further muddle who is in charge of doing which useless function, and will then be used as a whiny 'justification' for a 20% spending increase, lest the sun explode, or some outrageous claim.

  • Old Salt||

    Sounds like you were on a Navy base...

  • ||

    My brother said he sees the same thing at the defence contractor where he works, but it's his belief it has always been thus: everytime a new centurion took over the legion in Judea, he'd reorganize to make it look like he was doing something...human nature hasn't changed.

  • ||

    We always had the old 35.10 (haircut inspection)...because, if you didn't have good hair, well, you just couldn't fight right.
    People forget that behind the barbers at Stalingrad was another group of barbers, ready to shoot...or shave...or something.

  • B. Russell||

    What about the barbers who don't shave themselves?

  • Gregory Smith||

    Obama is not like the others, he's a true believer, raised the Marxists and hippies and ready to "transform" America.

    As Glenn Beck says, America doesn't need to be transformed, it needs to be refounded. We need to go back to the limited government principles of Washington and Jefferson.

    It's funny he likes Lincoln, Abe freed the slaves, Obama's turning us into government slaves.

  • Sovereign Immunity||

    Slaves are a red herring, Agent Smith. What he admires most about "Honest Abe" is that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and essentially assumed dictatorial power for a short time.

    The fact that Lincoln had his cake and ate it too, via neither recognizing the states' right to secede nor their votes for constitutional amendments, yet acknowledged their statehood only when it suited his agenda. It was about preserving the Union, not slavery, and history has judged Lincoln quite favorably.

    I can see why Lincoln is Obama's wet dream.

  • ||

    Yeah, it had nothing to do with slavery. That is why the South spent the 1850s shoving slavery down the country's throat through the Kansas Nebraska and fugitive slave acts. And that is also why every state's statement of succession began and ended with slavery.

  • Spartacus||

    Depends on what "it" is. From the states' point of view, secession was definitely about preserving their ancient wretched custom of slavery. For Lincoln, the war was intially about preserving the union and only became about slavery once the body count got so high the northerners were having second thoughts.

  • Wind Rider||

    Yep, the man himself stated on numerous occasions that he could give a shit about the institution of slavery, his over-riding goal was the preservation, consolidation, and expansion of federal power and authority. Slavery just happened to be the incendiary issue of the moment. Of course, non of the 'slave states' considered succession seriously until the money trick rubber hit the road, and the feds insisted on taxation policy that gave everyone south of the Mason Dixon line a severe case of nausea.

  • Tacos mmm...||

    Slavery just happened to be the incendiary issue of the moment.

    I'm going to go ahead an quote Grant's memoirs here:

    In the case of the war between the States it would have been the exact truth if the South had said,--"We do not want to live with you Northern people any longer; we know our institution of slavery is obnoxious to you, and, as you are growing numerically stronger than we, it may at some time in the future be endangered. So long as you permitted us to control the government, and with the aid of a few friends at the North to enact laws constituting your section a guard against the escape of our property, we were willing to live with you. You have been submissive to our rule heretofore; but it looks now as if you did not intend to continue so, and we will remain in the Union no longer." Instead of this the seceding States cried lustily,--"Let us alone; you have no constitutional power to interfere with us."

    From the Articles of Secession, State of Mississippi, 1861:

    A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.

    In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

    Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery, the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.


    I encourage you to read the other declarations here:

    http://www.americancivilwar.com/documents/

    Concern for continuation of the institution of slavery may not have been the only grievance, but it was the central and most important one.
  • sarcasmic||

    Yes slavery was the main reason the Southern States left the Union. That much is not in dispute.

    However Lincoln couldn't have given a fuck less about slavery. For him it was a matter of power.
    His purpose was to establish federal authority over the States and to abolish any notion of state sovereignty.
    He effectively demolished the 10th Amendment and set the path towards unlimited federal power.

    The man was a tyrant.

    This is not a defense of slavery. Slavery was and is evil. However to say Lincoln's purpose was to rid the continent of slavery is quite simply a lie.

  • ||

    To add, the states may have given slavery as one of their reasons for seceding, but all that matters is if they had the right to leave the union.

    Heck, if they said it was because they thought northerners smelled funny, it still comes down to the right of secession.

    Further, the South made no effort to invade the south,and Lincoln refused to negotiate with SC concerning Ft. Sumter, which was 500 miles from the closest northern state, so how could it any longer have been necessary for "common defense"? To say the south fired the first shot is like saying "He hit the guy first", yeah the guy who got in his face and kept making threatening comments.

  • ||

    Oh geez...correction, the south made not attempt to invade the north.

  • sarcasmic||

    third time's the charm

  • cynical||

    Slavery was the most important driver for secession, true. However, the war itself was primarily fought to prove that states could not leave the Union. Slavery as institution was a side issue.

  • Gregory Smith||

    He DOES NOT admire that about Lincoln, do you even watch his show? I do, and he hates the fascist practices of Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Roosevelt, etc, etc, etc.

  • CommentARRRR||

    "Politician opens mouth, lies spill out."

    This article only needed to be one sentence long.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "Obama depicts budget cutters as panicky passengers "trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing its engine"

    Typical leftist drivel.

    Government didn't create the economy in the first place and it isn't government spending that makes it work.

  • sarcasmic||

    Obama believes government is God, and the Federal Register is scripture.

    In his mind nothing exists without government.

    The economy exists because of regulation, not in spite of it.

    Your rights all come from government, because you are only allowed to do that which is authorized by government.

    Even the laws of physics exist at the pleasure of the government, for Congress could repeal the law of gravity at any time.

  • Tacos mmm...||

    You don't know fuck about what the president believes. You've never met him, and his speeches and public statements are nothing more than political gloss and gamesmanship. He's just and empty mould into which you can pour your fear and enmity. You need to stop taking politics so personally and unwind a bit. Get off the computer and go out into the real world.

  • sarcasmic||

    You project much.

  • sarcasmic||

    You project much.

  • Tacos mmm...||

    No, that's countertransference. Go have a beer.

  • sarcasmic||

    You wouldn't mumble so much if you took my cock out of your mouth.

  • Tacos mmm...||

    You can complain about the speech all you want, but McArdle is right. The president can't tell us the truth - no politician can - because the American public won't accept it. We have to hit the wall first before anything real can be done.

  • ||

    No politician can tell us the truth? So what has Ron Paul been doing all this time?

    And we are to believe somehow that Obama is really concerned about the truth? He is a narcissist who is only concerned about how he looks.

  • ||

    There's no alt-text on Eric Cantor's head? This egregious anti-semitism must cease.

  • ||

    I like a lot of what Rand Paul says but this "across the board" crap is unfortunate. As I've said before, if your household income is reduced by say 10% you dont cut all your expenditures by 10%. You figure out which ones are non essential (the daily Starbucks coffee, dinner out every week, etc) and eliminate them. Then you cut the necessary expenditures as much as possible.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Bullshit. Cut ALL government expenditures by *at least* ten percent. ALL expenditures.

  • ||

    I didn't say cut some by less than 10%. I said eliminate some (DOE, DHS, TSA, HUD,etc) and cut the rest by as much as possible. That means more than 10% if not elimination.

  • Vaccine||

    Yeah, but if all your spending is nonessential, you really can cut "across the board." And Rand may think (correctly, in my opinion) that there is at least X% of non-essential spending in every government program.

  • jester||

    An overloaded plane never gets off the ground in the first place, so removing parts to keep it flying is a non sequitur.

    If he means that reducing debt to get the economy off the ground, then he is implying that the economy is at a complete standstill.

    In aviation, your plane can run out of fuel, but hopefully, the pilot lands and refuels. The metaphor is just plain terrible speech-writing.

  • Vermont Gun Owner||

    Perhaps one of the engines failed in flight, thus lowering the amount of thrust and therefore making the plane overloaded to its new capabilities?

    Except in that case, it would make sense to ditch the engine.

  • jester||

    You'd make an emergency landing. There is no ejector switch to shuttle the bad engine.

  • Sovereign Immunity||

    He was thinking of a Spruce Goose. Remember, green jobs in a global economy.

  • Obama||

    Hey, I wrote that myself.

  • ||

    Whether a metaphor makes sense or not is irrelevant.

    The image is a vivid one that will stick in peoples' minds. We will hear it repeated many times in the next few weeks.

    The only way to respond to an image of this sort is with another, equally vivid image.

    I would suggest "So your solution for an overloaded piston-engine aircraft is to pump aboard 100 tons of highly volatile jet fuel?"

  • Robert||

    Jet fuel is less volatile than that for a piston engine, unless it's a Diesel.

  • ||

    I stand corrected, jet fuel is less volatile, now that you remind me. Substitute hydrazine for "jet fuel" in my original post.

  • ||

    How revealing, that Obama believes that government spending is the engine of the economy.

    Nothing outside the State, nothing against the State, everything for the State.

  • Obama||

    Hey, I wrote that myself.

  • Sovereign Immunity||

    Perhaps you should take the pain pill.

  • ||

    Until we are serious about eliminating whole chunks of the federal government (including things that Liberals like), we are never going to seriously reform our debt situation.

    Until we start looking at retirement as a period in life when people are simply too old to work, rather than as a decades long spring break for the elderly, and we start looking at really moving the retirement age closer to 70 or 72, we are not going to get this under control.

    Until we start looking at welfare as a temporary one time thing, and not as a lifestyle, we are not going to be able to fund infrastructure or maintain parks, because the people who would be available to take this work are collecting welfare instead.

    Until we get laws on the books that define the scope of power of public unions, and define accepting a campaign contribution as an automatic grounds for ineligibility of a public official to negotiate a contract with the union, we will never get these bloated contracts under control.

    Until we get laws on books that require government services to charge a fee that reflects the true cost of providing that service, we will always be stuck with parks and other services that cost 50 dollars but charge 25 dollars, and come to the taxpayers for the rest.

    Basically cutting the budgets mean actually doing it and doing it in a way that means some discomfort for people. We need to attack it from all fronts, so the folks can see that everyone has to take a hit.

    If we do what Obama wants, we won't get anywhere. But when has that not been the case?

  • Libertarian||

    I keep waiting in vain for the punditocracy to establish a new meme.......that is, the complete, absolute disconnect between Obama's words and reality. It just flabbergasts me that he talks about freezing part of the budget, increasing the rest, AND somehow that's going to result in deficit reduction. I'm living in Bizarro World.

  • Spartacus||

    We could call it the Obamaverse: an alternate reality where government makes everything run well, politicians shit ice cream, and the more you spend, the more you save.

  • ||

    THIS IS WAL-MART!!!

  • ||

    but McArdle is right

    This makes it hard to take you seriously.

  • ||

    Absent spending cuts, the deficit will remain large. Ongoing deficits will lead to growth in the money supply, devaluation of the dollar and ultimately inflation.

    Once inflation kicks in, the Fed will have two choices: Raise interest rates or continue to print money in an effort to "keep the economy growing."

    The former will accelerate the growth of the deficit by boosting the interest costs and reducing revenue as the economy shrinks.

    The latter will lead to ever-greater inflation as people try to unload there dollars.

  • cynical||

    Can't cut anything, huh? Well, maybe they should have a very special episode of hoarders for the federal government.

  • ||

    500,000 people died in the civil war. That was a great tragedy and the south could very well have won that war. It is questionable wether it was worth that great sacrifice to end slavery.

    Those who don't have to make that ultimate sacrifice and see only the benefits of ending slavery don't have the right to judge those who lived and died through the civil war. It's like the idiots who say dropping the atomic bomb on Japan was racist. It's easy for them to say that as they don't have to die in invasion of Japan and they did not experience the Japanese atrocities first hand. They are arrogant, disrespectful and ignorant.

  • ||

    Turns out that history is almost as hard as math.

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