Government Spending

Embrace the Sequester and Go Cold Turkey on Federal Addiction

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Barack Obama
White House

My colleagues point out that the White House is spreading bogeyman stories thick and deep with warnings that sequestration will shutter agencies that were actually closed down long ago and bring  American life to a grinding halt as unfunded bureaucrats stop greasing the wheels and wiping our snotty noses for us. But it's true that the Obama administration has a lot of examples to offer of lost programs and salaries and subsidies if sequestration forces a humongous 1.5 percent reduction in projected spending for fiscal 2013, reducing the behemoth on the Potomac to *sob* spending only a little bit more ($3.55 trillion) than it spent the previous year ($3.53 trillion). With the Congressional Budget Office estimating (PDF) that "[b]y 2023, if current laws remain in place, debt will equal 77 percent of GDP and be on an upward path," those examples should be ample evidence that federal spending is an unsustainable monkey on America's collective back, and it's as good a time as any to go cold turkey.

The White House helpfully breaks down the oh-so unconscionable cuts in essential services sequestration will force on us state by state. So it's easy for me to peruse the sad fate awaiting my community (PDF) because "Arizona will lose approximately $17.7 million in funding for primary and secondary education, putting around 240 teacher and aide jobs at risk." Teachers and aides? Why is D.C. needed to pay for teachers and aides in Arizona schools? Wouldn't it be a tad more efficient if we in Arizona paid our own teachers instead of sending money off to the swamp that neither Maryland nor Virginia wanted so that it can be returned to us as an example of federal largesse?

Likewise, "[a]round 2,310 fewer low income students in Arizona would receive aid to help them finance the costs of college and around 330 fewer students will get work-study jobs that help them pay for college." Uh huh. Note that, even in this era of inflated higher education costs, annual in-state tuition at Northern Arizona University remains a not-so-ruinous $8,453. Maybe students could work at real jobs to pay the bill (my wife waited tables and I worked at a warehouse and sold dope) instead of the phony subsidized "jobs" that constitute work-study.

The White House also warns that "[i]n Arizona, approximately 10,000 civilian Department of Defense employees would be furloughed." That sounds like a great start in transitioning toward a productive economy that blows less stuff up. As for "job-search assistance" and "law enforcement and public safety funds," I think my county could survive with a few less sheriff's deputies and I imagine they can all master the intricacies of Monster.com.

Overall, even if you approve of the programs that are threatened with cuts, it's not clear, aside from defense-related expenditures, why those programs are funded in any way by the feds.

On a national basis, the White House highlights five areas of supposedly especially dire threats from sequestration:

  • Cuts to education
  • Cuts to small business
  • Cuts to food safety
  • Cuts to research and innovation
  • Cuts to mental health

To me, this is less an argument against cuts than an exhibit of how dependent we've allowed ourselves to become on the federal government. Are we really going to argue that private businesses need the federal government in order to function? Research and innovation needs the wizards of D.C.? If so, it's only in the way that my Uncle Nick needed a glass of scotch.

I don't doubt that weaning people who have grown accustomed to dependency off of the federal teat may be a bit painful at first, but the well really is running dry. Note that the CBO's estimate that "debt will equal 77 percent of GDP" is based on optimistic assumptions. The CBO adds (PDF):

If, for instance, lawmakers eliminated the automatic spending cuts scheduled to take effect in March (but left in place the original caps on discretionary funding set by the Budget Control Act), prevented the sharp reduction in Medicare's payment rates for physicians, and extended the tax provisions that are scheduled to expire at the end of calendar year 2013 (or, in some cases, in later years), budget deficits would be substantially larger over the coming decade than in CBO's baseline projections. With those changes, and no offsetting reductions in deficits, debt held by the public would rise to 87 percent of GDP by the end of 2023 rather than to 77 percent.

Automated, unthinking across-the-board cuts may not be the best way to reduce the country's dependence on a stumbling federal government, but Americans have to put down the crack pipe some time. Now would be a good time to start, with a very modest trim to what will still be an increase in federal spending.