Tuesday, January 26, 2010

There is no spending freeze constituency

Let me just suggest that no members of Congress, with the possible exception of Tom Coburn (R-OK), are actually deficit hawks.  Many of them will talk a good game about responsible budgeting and reducing spending, yet so many of them who say these words will nonetheless support agricultural subsidies, increased defense spending, federal projects in their states, etc.  And you pretty much never hear them championing raising taxes, which is one of the two ways you can reduce deficits.  It's isn't that they don't like spending; it's that they don't like who's doing the spending and where the money is going.

Similarly, there are no real deficit hawks among the population at large.  Yes, there are some very vocal conservatives who are angry at runaway federal spending right now, but most of those folks were happily on board with President Bush's tax cuts, a preemptive war, and a massive and unfunded expansion of Medicare just a few years ago.  And while I'm sure some polls today suggest that independent voters are concerned about spending and deficits, I think that's true only in the abstract.  Yes, we're all deeply concerned about the government spending more than it takes in, but what specifically do people want to cut?  Medicare?  Social Security?  The military?  Education?  Suddenly the deficit hawk caucus disappears.  No one favors specific cuts.

So I'm really not sure whom Obama is trying to impress with his freeze talk.  Maybe he figures he can mollify those in favor of non-specific cuts by offering some non-specific cuts.  But as soon as he proposes cutting something that anyone actually likes, the party's over.  Yeah, cut spending and balance the budget, but you'd better not raise my taxes/cut my Medicare/defund our schools....


Robert said...

This is why I'm becoming more convinced that this country will actually become a second-rate economic power at some point in the mid-term future. We owe money; we have no will to stop borrowing, much less to pay it back. At some point we will default to our international creditors, or more likely at some point before that our creditors will abandon the dollar which will precipitate our default. Cue the Latin American style economic crises.

Am I missing something?

P.S. Call me the deficit hawk constituency of one. I think that a spending freeze is a great start. And, yes, I'm willing to see my sacred cows suffer the axe. Cut my school funding, please.

Kyle Baker said...

Abortions for some, tiny American flags for others!

Seth Masket said...

Robert, we needn't be doomed. Congress and President Clinton managed to turn our massive deficits into surpluses in the 1990s and did so at the right time -- when the economy was expanding strongly. Conversely, FDR decided to try to rein in the deficit in 1937 by cutting spending and raising taxes, which only resulted in a deepening of the Great Depression. It's not that there's inherently a problem with balancing a budget. Our political system has achieved it before and can do so again. But there's the matter of timing.

Robert said...

But I read your post to say that there is inherently a problem with balancing a budget. The inherent problem is that there is not a constituency out there that is behind it, while there are massive constituencies that either say "Don't tax me more" or "don't spend on my pet issue less" or both.

And as for the Clinton years, I read that to say that if the wind is entirely at our backs, then we can maybe balance the budget for one or two years. Which just means that for one or two years we're breaking even - not reducing our debt but just not getting more into debt. But if there's any bump in the economy or if the political stars don't otherwise line up correctly then we're back in the red. I'm unconvinced. (But I still think I must be missing something.)