In the World

Bad budgets and worse budgets

The White House's 2012 budget proposes significant cuts to
financial aid, community development and low-income energy assistance. The
Pentagon, however, gets exactly the budget it requested. (See the full
breakdown here.) To paraphrase Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D.--Ill.),
with Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?

Well, service-minded young adults and fans of public
media don't. House Republicans are pushing to eliminate funding for
AmeriCorps and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, along with other deep
cuts that far surpass what President Obama proposes. The
two plans are for separate budget processes--the GOP is tackling the 2011 budget, which Congress still needs
to pass if we're going to continue having a government this year--but
the politics are densely intertwined.

While the Republicans have struggled to get on the same page,
they're united in criticizing the president's proposal: along
with not cutting enough, Obama ignores ballooning entitlement costs--and he loves taxes. The latter point is just
their facts-be-damned insistence that the only way to balance a budget is to
spend less, not take in more. (Love it or hate it, small-government ideology is
no substitute for math.) But on entitlements the Republicans have a point:
Obama declined to address Social Security and Medicare; it's more strategic to
leave this for later negotiations. Add to this his acceptance
of the bloated-military status quo, and it's hard to come up with big-time
spending cuts without taking the Republicans' scorched-earth approach.

The federal government is, after all, primarily an insurance company with its own army. I wrote about this a while back, highlighting a
proposal to inform taxpayers about the federal spending breakdown by
distributing itemized tax receipts. This article by Annie Lowrey takes a
similar tack: "What would the budget look like if the United States were
a middle-class household?

Imagine that your family is deeply in debt, but any
change to your main expenses--housing, food, transportation--is off the table.
(So is taking a second job: either you or your spouse is somehow convinced that
increasing your income wouldn't actually help.)
The only choices left are to gut the rest of your budget or keep living with
the debt.

Of course, the federal government is not just another
household. "Americans are tightening their belts," the politicians like to say,
"so their government needs to do the same." But our fragile economy calls for government investment, too--and our
political climate doesn't handle this kind of complexity well.

Instead, it pushes lawmakers toward compromises that
accomplish little and please no one. Derek Thompson compares Obama's budget to a spork,
which basically exists to underperform at multiple tasks. It's true that, as
Jonathan Chait points out, the budget proposal's purpose is
political--the president seeks to "seize the center and portray Republicans as
unreasonable." But I fear this is another of Obama's preemptive compromises, leaving struggling Americans with a Congress that
seeks to eviscerate the programs that benefit them vs. a president who, well, also plans to cut them, but less--and with more compromises to come.

Ezra Klein notes that we could do a lot more to reduce
the deficit by doing nothing: simply implement the health-care
reform law and let the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012. Maybe a government
shutdown's not such a bad idea--if someone can engineer it to only affect

Steve Thorngate

The Century managing editor is also a church musician and songwriter.

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