Government Spending

Do Budget Cuts Kill People? Or Do People Kill People?


The Washington Examiner has a bracing editorial up about the propensity of liberal commentators to say that cutting government spending will kill people.


"To be a little melodramatic, the budget would kill people," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently told CNN about House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's Path to Prosperity. "No question." With the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund set to run out of money Thursday, and with none of the federal government's 12 appropriations bills signed into law so far, you can expect a lot more melodramatic quotes like this one in the coming weeks.

Liberal assertions that cuts in government spending will cause certain death are nothing new. Sixteen years ago this week, Krugman's fellow columnist Bob Herbert warned New York Times readers that the welfare reform bill Republicans were then debating in the Senate "would hurt many people, would kill some and would help no one."…

More recently, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein accused Sen. Joe Liebermann, I-Conn., of being "willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands" because he threatened not to vote for Obamacare.

The reality, of course, is a bit different. As the Examiner notes, Krugman and Herbert offered no data to suggest how folks would die. In the case of the welfare reform deplored by Herbert and many others back in the day, it seems to have been a rousing success with exactly no body count. Far from being some draconian budget exercise, the Ryan budget (alas) envisioned spending $3.6 trillion in fiscal 2012 and $4.7 trillion in 2021. The notion that not passing Obamacare would kill "hundreds of thousands," the Examiner notes drily, was based on a "flawed study."

More here.

I don't doubt that Republicans cry mass murder (or its equivalent) when folks talk about cutting their preferred spending, whether it's "defense" or farm subsidies or abstinence-only education or whatever. National security hawks certainly get the vapors when commie-symp-pinkos such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) grant that the Pentagon's budget is fattier than bargain-brand baloney.

It's amazing how nobody seems serious about cutting the freaking budget. Even the budget cutters aren't particularly hard-core on the issue, which sorta-kinda explain why government spending keeps on going up.

But to get back to the opening gambit: Do budget cuts kill people?

Consider at least this much. The most-recent flap over a possible government shutdown centered around funds for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which oversees federal response to earthquakes, fires, floods, and other natural disasters. This is an agency whose track record is as horrible as its budget seems pretty flush. In 2001, the director asked for $3.6 billion (not sure he got it; it's hard to find the agency's data online) and Wikipedia reports its 2008 budget at $5.8 billion.

In any case, the recurrent criticism of FEMA, which probably added to the death toll of Hurricane Katrina through its widely noted incompetence ("Heckuva job, Brownie!"), has little to do with dollars per se. The plain fact is that federal government spending on virtually everything is way, way up since, say 2000. Whether you slice it as percentage of GDP, inflation-adjusted dollars, amount per targeted recipient, you name it, we're spending tons more than we were only a decade or so ago. If people are going to drop dead if that amount of dough gets trimmed at all, it's not really about money. As with many things, maybe most things, especially when it comes to government, it's the people and the organizational structure that is the problem.