Starve the Beast (of my choice, please)

by Michael Smith

Last week, Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post penned a meaty column about the country’s fiscal outlook and the choices we face about the size and scope of government. It’s no surprise that a moderate conservative like Samuelson would tackle these issues, but until recently, a left-leaning paper like the Post was more likely to examine them in the context of rowdy town hall protests and tea parties than in serious opinion pieces.

Now the media have largely abandoned the fiction that the only people who worry about this stuff are irate grannies (who also want the government to keep its hands off their Medicare). Samuelson skipped the tea parties, as far as I know, and he’s aware that Medicare is a government program—but he still worries!

He also regrets that most Americans would rather discuss the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to them while naked than the real-world solutions to our looming financial crisis. If you lean right, you don’t want to admit that taxes have to go up. If you lean left, you don’t want to admit that spending has to go down. And if you’re a politician, you’d rather strip down and recreate your most embarrassing moment on live TV than get caught in a realistic budget debate: you have too much to fear from your base.

One of Samuelson’s scary questions—“Will social spending crowd out defense spending?”—caught my eye. If the answer is yes, liberals who dream of emulating Europe will be delighted. No mystery there. But what about conservatives? They too have a dream: that mounting deficits will eventually force reductions in social spending. That was part of the rationale behind the Reagan tax cuts—to “starve the beast.”

Are present-day politicians on both sides of the fence hoping to starve the beast? A common fear—voters—could lead them to a common strategy, even if they’re after different species. We obviously need to slow spending, but if there’s a chance that deficits help my agenda more than yours, why should I stick my neck out first?

Considering the prospect of ax-wielding voters looking around for necks when their entitlements are threatened or their taxes raised, the question is not unreasonable.

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1 Comment
  1. Hollis says:

    The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility will offer up cuts and tax increases that bring the deficits for the next 4 or 5 years down to “reasonable” levels—and passage is a real possibility. But it’s hard to imagine that they could even agree on a long-term fix, let alone get it passed.

    Nevertheless, it’s not at all hard to imagine, at this point, that the public could reach a consensus on the need for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. Each citizen would be free to believe that somebody else’s ox would be gored when the budget battles started in earnest. That’s fine—and if Congress wants to say that the amendment won’t take effect until 2014, that’s OK too.

    Can we also establish a constitutional limit on federal spending as a % of GDP? Please?

    Reply
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