Jewish World Review Nov. 11, 2010 4 Kislev, 5771
The Politics of Budget-Cutting
By Victor Davis Hanson
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | The voters just spoke. They think they want no more gargantuan deficits, massive public spending and exponential growth in government -- or the specter of higher taxes to pay for all of it. No wonder: We are on pace to soon owe 100 percent of our annual gross domestic product in national debt, while compiling the largest annual peacetime deficits in our history.
So cutting the borrowing and spending is inevitable if America is to avoid a
First, no one ever reduces government in good times, when we are far better able to limit spending, and the public needs less assistance. Cutting happens only after the economy falters and the money runs out.
That fact always leads to a vicious cycle: When the people believe they need public assistance the most, an indebted government is least able to provide it. Recipients become accustomed to the steady additions in federal money they receive and will insist that they can survive only by continual increases, never by their own reduction in expenditures.
Second, tax-raising has limits, as we see from the
Third, Democrats are always politically in a far better position to cut federal spending. As the signature party of redistributive change, they are least vulnerable to charges of being needlessly cruel -- in the same ironic way that conservatives give aberrant big-spending Republicans a greater pass, as if their profligacy is somehow out of character.
That paradox may explain why government spending as a percentage of GDP actually shrunk under
Fourth, politicians promise the easy cutting of generic "waste and fraud," "foreign aid" or "unnecessary wars." The problem, however, is that waste, wars, and aid this year probably account for less than 5 percent of the federal budget. In contrast, more than 60 percent of yearly spending is devoted to
Fifth, self-interest governs the entire debate. Roughly half the public pays no income tax. And roughly half of America either receives all of its income or a large part of it from the federal government. Beneficiaries vote for higher taxes on others and still more benefits for themselves. Benefactors obviously prefer fewer payouts for others and lower taxes on themselves.
Yet political affiliation is not always a clear guide. Despite public rhetoric, many conservatives will privately object to the cutting of any federal benefits they receive, while high-earning liberals might quietly resent having to pay increased taxes to be spent on others.
Sixth, there is always a "you go first" element to budget cutting. The party that imposes discipline is demagogued, even as its opportunistic opposition usually claims credit for the improved economy that follows from the responsible policies of others.
What can the public do? Americans should laud any politician of either party who has the courage to balance budgets, and they should hold accountable any who do not. Budget cutting may be depressing, but not as depressing as bankruptcy (ask the French and Greeks). Do not forget that just as households become upbeat when mortgages and credit cards are paid off, so too will Americans collectively recover their optimism and sense of pride when we are admired abroad for our fiscal sobriety rather than ridiculed for our spending addiction.
And look at it this way: In terms of our collective health and national security, a budget surplus is probably worth more than an expanded federal health-care entitlement, another
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Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and military historian, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal. Comment by clicking here.
© 2010, TMS