Trump Budget Cuts: Real or 'Reality' Show?

The Trump "budget cuts" are best understood as a kind of theater or performance art.


Splash News/Newscom

Donald Trump ran for office promising to crush the Islamic State, end the influx of illegal immigration from Mexico, and stop the flight of American manufacturing jobs to China. Now that he's in office, he seems to be focusing on different set of targets: Public television's "Big Bird," poor old people who benefit from "Meals on Wheels," and history graduate students and scholars of the Founding Fathers who get grants from the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH). Some reports even had the Trump administration slashing funding for the Coast Guard.

What's going on here?

The Trump "budget cuts"—they deserve quotation marks, because no money has yet actually been cut—are best understood in the context of Trump's home city, New York. There, for decades, the mayor would propose draconian "cuts" to popular institutions like museums and libraries. The museums and libraries would dutifully rally their constituencies to fight against the proposed "cuts." And the City Council would intervene to restore the funding, winning the gratitude of those that had been targeted.

This was widely and correctly understood as a kind of theater. No funding was genuinely in jeopardy, other than the personal funds of the taxpayers who wound up eventually footing the bill for the government spending. The mayor got to pose as fiscally prudent. The City Council got to claim credit for protecting the museums and libraries, which had never really been in danger.

A 2010 New York Times article described it as "something of an annual budget ritual: Public libraries, always among the first city services to be threatened with substantial cuts in financing, are forced to face the abyss, only to be saved in the end, in whole or significant part."

A 1998 article from the Queens Courier, a local newspaper in Trump's original home borough, quoted a City Council member, Archie Spigner, who said, "Cutting libraries and culture is a ritualistic maneuver between the Mayor and the Council. In my 25 years on the Council it has always been that way, whether it was a Democratic or Republican mayor. The Mayor proposes the reduction and the Council makes restitution. It's the reality of politics and I don't think the Mayor's serious."

For Trump, it's a win-win maneuver. He lets small-government conservatives, many of whom never quite trusted him in the first place, believe that he made a good-faith effort to cut federal spending. And he lets the Republican Congress, which is up for re-election before he is, claim credit with centrist swing voters for sparing popular programs from Trump's budget axe.

On the substance of it, there is a strong case for cutting or eliminating many of the targeted programs.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting warns about the risk to Sesame Street, but that program in 2015 made a five-season deal with HBO. HBO is a for-profit network that is part of Time Warner, whose deal to be acquired by AT&T awaits Trump administration antitrust review.

The NEH trotted out, in its own defense, the president of Harvard, Drew Faust. Harvard has a $35.7 billion endowment. The NEH's total annual appropriation in 2015 was $146 million. Faust herself earned $1.2 million in compensation from Harvard in the most recently disclosed year, along with an additional $250,000 for her service on the board of Staples, an office supply retailer. She and her fellow star historians can probably survive okay without taxpayer help from NEH grants.

This question—is it ritualistic theater, a kind of performance art, or is it real?—is one worth keeping in mind for all of Trump's initiatives, not just his budget. Is, say, the effort to repeal ObamaCare real? Or is it, like the budget cuts, an elaborate show?

It's easy to be fooled. Some people thought Trump's entire presidential campaign was an elaborate act designed to fail. Then, he won the election.

Even "failed" efforts can be successful in a way by changing the parameters of the political discussion.

But caution and skepticism are nonetheless in order, both for liberals panicking over the proposed cuts and for conservatives cheering them. One oft-claimed distinction between liberals and conservatives is that liberals measure intentions, while conservatives insist on results. An erosion of that distinction by the Trump presidency wouldn't necessarily count as progress.

NEXT: Comey Confirms FBI Investigating Ties Between Russia, Trump Associates

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Sometimes, when you drain a swamp, you gotta make a new swamp next to the original swamp to put all the sludge in.

    1. And new-swamp building counts as infrastructure spending. Jobs saved or created.

      1. Shovel ready!

        1. Wasn’t ‘drain-a-swamp’ your nickname in college?

          1. Nah.

      2. That is certainly not ideal. It is, however, preferable to what we have now. I would rather the money not be spent at all. If it must be spent, however, I would rather it be spent building something, even something useless and unneeded than it spent empowering regulators to shut down the economy. I will take a few bridges to nowhere over the EPA any day. And hell maybe they will actually fix the roads in this country. I mean have the money spent on an actual legitimate governmental function. What a concept.

        1. Overspending on infrastructure is not good, but it sure beats overspending on non-infrastructure.

        2. Sure, the solution to incidents like the lead in Flint water is to actually weaken an EPA instead of reforming it to focus on important issues and provide a better check to local governments that seem unwilling to maintain some good standards for clean air and water. Funny thing about a lot of people who complain about the EPA(not saying that it’s you necessarily)>: A lot of them get up in arms against neighbors lawns or other housing codes that are mere visual pollution.

          The knee jerk reaction to EPA is tired. You want countries with no strong environmental laws, go to India or some Eastern European country.

          1. Sure, the solution to incidents like the lead in Flint water is to actually weaken an EPA instead of reforming it

            Yes, it is. Flint’s problem wasn’t an EPA problem, it was a problem with the local management of their water plant.

            ou want countries with no strong environmental laws, go to India or some Eastern European country.

            Excellente example: Eastern European countries had placed all their environmental protection in the hands of the government, and the result was environmental disaster.

      3. Certainly, electing a billionaire is the solution.

        Our problem is that rich people do not simply own everything. That big bad gubmint should be their property.

    2. He’s more into prepping the bull than draining the swamp.

      1. prepping the bull

        These euphemisms…

  2. “Public television’s “Big Bird,” poor old people who benefit from “Meals on Wheels,”

    Just stop. You look very dumb saying this. Sesame Street is funded by HBO and CDGB grants rarely fund ‘Meals on Wheels”.

    Come on. There is a lot to criticize in the budget, but I tune out as soon as you start pitching ridiculous progressive talking points

    1. Looks like I shouldn’t have tuned out, because you acknowledge these arguments as untrue. Carry on then

    2. @WakaWaka:

      From the text above: “The Corporation for Public Broadcasting warns about the risk to Sesame Street, but that program in 2015 made a five-season deal with HBO.”

      If you’re going to “tune out” before you read the piece, maybe go the whole way and also don’t bother commenting.

      1. Look at above comment. If you’re not going to read the entire comment perhaps you should not be commenting

  3. The gals from The Federalist nailed it the other day on the budget, rightly calling all Presidential Budgets “government fan-fic.”

    1. Possibly. OTOH, the President can propose cuts, and then make the pork enthusiasts waste political capitol defending their troughs. Maybe he gets the cuts passed. Maybe he does an end run around the troughs and gets something else.

      Or maybe he’s all hat and no cattle.

      It’s March of his first year in office. Whether he accomplishes anything worthwhile remains to be seen, but he’s already been more entertaining in a few months than Obama was in eight years…or Shrillery in her whole life.

      1. The lesson of the story is that if rich people don’t approve of it, it is wrong.

        Also, the poors should donate as much of their income to charity as the rich…because its only fair.

        It doesn’t matter what the most intelligent and educated say unless they are rich or approve of the rich.

  4. Yes, Reason is dead serious about cutting government spending. They show it by bitching about any attempts to cut even small, pointless government programs, like CPB.

    Because, OBVIOUSLY, it’ll much easier to cut programs with a lot of people using them than smaller ones with far fewer people using them. Totally logical.

    I’ll also remind you that, as of today, he’s been in office FOR TWO FUCKING MONTHS.

    I don’t remember this parade of “OMG!! OBAMA DIDN’T FULFILL HIS PROMISES” at the end of his second month in office. Nor any other President ever.

    1. Watch out. I’m pretty sure John agrees with that, so he’ll be along to call you names shortly.

      1. Yeah what about it?

      2. “That is the dumbest fucking thing I have read all year. And that’s saying something.”

        1. That statement is sadly only good for about an hour these days.

          1. Well, when you keep setting that level, people feel a need to try and surpass you. But nobody can beat you in idiocy. You have so much more experience.

    2. I, for one, can’t wait to see ENB attacking Republicans for de-funding Planned Parenthood, while somehow pretending that this is a totally libertarian position.

    3. He should cut subsidies to the ownership class. But you know, they deserve gubmint subsides.

      Its the poors that deserve nothing

  5. Damn, that abortion thread got Hihnfected pretty bad.

    1. Hihn might be the most terrifyingly stupid person I have ever encountered. I don’t think he is a troll. I think he is an actual person. He is not trolling. He is really that stupid. And that is just terrifying when you think about it. Hihn is so stupid that Tony and Shreek seem like thoughtful and intelligent people by comparison.

      1. 20 yrs. ago he was as strident as now, but the things he was so strident about were many & varied compared to now. Now seems like 1 note.

  6. The article is idiotic. If proposing to cut the EPA or PBS is in Stoll’s view just theater because it will never happen, then what exactly does Stoll consider a real proposal? Does Stoll live in some alternative universe where cutting Social Security or Medicare is something that is going to be popular and easy to do?

    I am hard pressed to come up with any way a President could propose to cut spending that wouldn’t be “theater” by Stoll’s standards.

    Beyond that, since when are Libertarians of all people judging a proposal by the perceived likelihood of it passing? If Gary Johnson had been elected and proposed repealing all of the federal drug prohibition laws, would Stoll call that theater? I would hope not.

    This article shows that the author has become resigned to a giant government to such a degree that he will not even support proposing to cut it. Why doesn’t Ira just get it over with and become an open progressive?

  7. Eh. Seems like he’s simply fulfilling more campaign promises. He promised to cut spending on discretionary programs, increase the military, and (eventually) balance the budget. He’s doing the first two, and balancing new spending with cuts keeps the third still plausible. The real Kabuki will be in Congress, of course.

  8. Trump will never serious run for POTUS
    Trump will never get the nomination
    Trump will never get elected
    >>>You are here
    Trump will never cut spending

  9. The cuts will be as real as Congress makes them. The political make up of the Congress is a bit different than the political makeup of the New York City Council.

    And he lets the Republican Congress, which is up for re-election before he is, claim credit with centrist swing voters for sparing popular programs from Trump’s budget axe.

    Many of these cuts have been the stuff of conservative and libertarian wet dreams for decades. We’ll see how many Repubs want to be the cold, wet blanket on those dreams when they are already likely facing Trump insurgencies in the primaries of the upcoming midterm elections.

    Primaries are a bigger problem for Republicans than general elections.

  10. With Trump, it’s all a show. Funny how he made such a huge deal about Obama going on golf trips. Meanwhile, his wife refuses to move with their son to the white house promptly as if DC has no good private schools. That costs the taxpayers a lot of money. And Trump keeps going over to FL costing more to the taxpayers than Obama’s comparable annual expenditure on these kind of trips. Oh, but he will save us by not taking a salary (Which I predict will be another bullshit claim by a liar). And how’s this for idiocy. HIs SOS claims we will have less foreign military adventures under Trump, yet, they want an increased defense budget?

    1. And how’s this for idiocy. HIs SOS claims we will have less foreign military adventures under Trump, yet, they want an increased defense budget?

      You tell us. You seem to be the kind of “idiot” who thinks there is a contradiction there.

  11. Cartoon HD is a very popular app as you know. we can watch animated videos, movies on your smartphone.
    If you are a android user then you can easily download this app.
    You can also use this app if you are a iOS user. For more details check the process of download Download Cartoon HD Apk

  12. Or… maybe Trump just has too much else on his plate, like health care, SCOTUS, and rolling back regulations, to also try to fight a serious battle over the budget.

  13. Anything that helps the poors is bad.

    Good riddance!

  14. Cooing has 9 units available for sale in joulz in 6th October. See prices, amenities, and maps of new and resale homes by Inertia Egypt.

  15. You really make it appear really easy together with your presentation however I in finding this matter to be really one thing which I feel I might by no means understand. It kind of feels too complicated and very vast for me. I am having a look ahead in your subsequent submit, I will try to get the cling of it!
    Regards – http://www.office.com/setup

  16. its just a fake show nothing real…

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.