Alan Simpson on Cutting Defense & Entitlements, Sparrow Belches in Typhoons, Green Weenies, & More


Here's former Sen. Alan Simpson, one of the co-chairs of President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsiblity and Reform, talking to Candy Crowley on CNN, about the head-in-the-sand mentality still affecting, well, everyone in Washington:

"We're going to get rid of all earmarks, all waste, fraud and abuse, all foreign aid, Air Force One, all congressional pensions," said Simpson on Sunday in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union." "That's just sparrow belch in the midst of the typhoon. That's about six, eight, ten percent of where we are. So, I'm waiting for the politician to get up and say, there's only one way to do this: you dig into the big four, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and defense. And anybody giving you anything different than that, you want to walk out the door, stick your finger down your throat, and give them the green weenie."…

While many Republicans are still resisting cutting the defense budget, Simpson said that military spending needed to be addressed in order to seriously reduce the deficit. He said that the commission asked Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) about what they hear from the Defense Department about cutting contractors. "They don't know how many contractors they have," he said in amazement of the Pentagon. "It's something between 250,000 and a million. So, our proposal is to cut 250,000 contractors out of the game."

Simpson is right that the cuts have gotta start now and they've got to be bigger and wider-ranging than most pols of either party are wiling to consider or discuss. For the most part, the Dems either deny things are all that bad or want to increase revenue (taxes) to bring in more dough. Apart from all the other issues attendant to raising taxes, there's no reason to believe that increased revenues alone will balance the budget any more than killing revenue will produce a balanced budget (a.k.a. "starve the beast"). That's because spending is key. That, far more than revenue, is what fluctuates. As Veronique de Rugy and I wrote in this piece about balancing the budget without raising taxes, since 1950, federal revenues have been remarkably stable, coming in around 18 percent-19 percent of GDP. All past attempts to really jack that up (or lower it) have come to naught.

When it comes to Republicans, their reflexive defense of defense spending (not to mention the super-sacrosanctity of entitlements for relatively wealthy geezers) is virtually impenetrable. How else can you explain the argument by American Enterprise Institute scholars that small-government enthusiasts such as Sen. Tom Coburn risk turning the GOP into "a combination of Ebenezer Scrooge and George McGovern" by arguing that defense spending needs to be on the table?

Of course, Alan Simpson ain't perfect, that's for sure. Who the hell knows what a "green weenie" is (then again, he served with disgraced former Sen. Bob Packwood [R-Or.], so maybe it's a generational thing)? The commission's plan for fiscal sanity relied on federal revenues reliably settling north of 21 percent, something that hasn't ever happened at least since 1950. And you can retire the Republican out of the Senate, but you can't quite take the hawkish-sacrificer bent outta the Republican. Simpson again on CNN:

He also called for Americans to sacrifice more during wartime. "Let me tell you, guys, nobody's going to hurt the military," he said. "We're not going to hurt Iran and Iraq, but this is the first war, in our history, where we never had a tax to support a war, including the Revolution. And nobody has sacrificed in this country, nobody, accept the people in the military. And, in our report, we use words like sacrifice, self-sacrifice. We use words like going broke. And it's written in English. It's not written for pundits or parliamentarians or journalists. It's written for the American people.

Well, he's right that the actual folks fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the people who live in those misbegotten nations too) are the only ones who have sacrificed. The real point, though, is that we don't need to be sacrificing anybody or anything there. We need to get out, sooner rather than later. Yes, we should be paying for wars as they happen, not borrowing dough for that cause. But we don't need to be sacrificing at home in order to balance the budget or restore federal spending to, I don't know, 18.2 percent of GDP, the level it was in Bill Clinton's last budget. What we need to do is stop and/or cut the programs that have increased federal outlays by a whopping 62 percent in real dollars since 2001. As all of us who lived through 2000 can tell you, nobody was starving or dying or roughing it due to puny levels of federal spending as a percentage of GDP. The "sacrifice" needed to bring the budget into line with historical revenue levels is the sacrifice needed to downscale from a Mercury to a Ford, from flank steak to flat-iron, from unrestrainedly extravagant to restrainedly extravagant. Even with spending at 19 percent of GDP, we won't be anywhere near bone. That's the message of de Rugy and my "19 Percent Solution," which presents a way of balancing the federal budget incrementally over the next decade. A short version is here and the full-length case is made in the latest issue of Reason, on newsstands now (subscribe! a year is less than $20!).

Hat tip: Doug Mataconis at the great Outside the Beltway blog.