Sunday, November 30, 2003

Cutting Spending, and Other Myths

I took a week off due to spam, I guess. I wrote this column last week and emailed it to my editor while in Florida for a Devereux meeting, but he claims he never received it. I asked what happened, and sent it again; apparently the first time it got caught in the Tribune's email system spam filter. So it ran this Sunday instead, and I got to take the week off. And I hope my father-in-law, who always picks up the check, reads to the very end.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 30, 2003

Can we drop the pretense that we can balance the budget by cutting spending? Nobody’s done it, nobody will, and people who pretend that fantasy can come true are deluding themselves.

Better you should believe in the Easter Bunny. With that myth, kids get some chocolate. With the “just cut spending” myth, kids merely get burdened with our debts.

Exhibit A is the new California governor, who campaigned as an outsider, not a politician, not beholden to special interests, blah blah blah. So how does Gov. Schwarzenegger plan to tackle his state’s budget woes?

First, he repealed the hated car tax increase, worsening the deficit by $2 billion.

Second, under California’s peculiar budget rules, the repeal cuts money intended for local governments for fire, police, and other services. Naturally, the new governor wishes for $2 billion in offsetting spending cuts so local communities don’t suffer, but he wants somebody else to propose specific cuts. It’s like the movies: Call in a stunt double and let him demonstrate leadership.

So after making matters worse, and not leading, what is this great GOP hope’s plan? It’s borrowing $15 billion, the largest state bond issue in history. During the campaign, we thought he promised to “cut spending” but apparently he actually meant “borrow billions.” I guess we didn’t understand his accent or something.

Then there’s Exhibit B, Washington, D.C., where Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court, but they can’t control spending. They can try to shift the blame, but the GOP is large and in charge and can’t get off the spending barge.

President Bush has mostly gotten whatever he wants through Congress, except for 6 out of some 150 judges (as opposed to nearly 60 judges Clinton nominated who never got a vote from the GOP). But Bush hasn’t vetoed a single spending bill or done anything serious to cut spending.

Think I’m overstating the GOP’s sorry record? Then go read the energy bill, which nobody outside of Washington can stomach. It’s a stinking multi-billion dollar pile of vote-getting goodies, subsidies large and small for both major campaign contributors (oil, ethanol, and MTBE) and minor civic achievements (the first Hooters in Shreveport -- hooray!). Cut spending? Not with votes to be had.

Not only has complete GOP control actually increased spending from what the Clinton administration (with a booming economy) did, but these supposedly flinty tightwads want to create two new, massive entitlement programs. You’ve probably heard about a new prescription drug benefit in Medicare, which would take this entire page (and more) to explain; suffice it to say that it’s a major new spending program launched with the budget deficit at nominally record levels.

But these Republicans have created a second entitlement program. You may think it’s a war, but listen to the high-concept language of the Bush administration about our national commitment to perform a task that’s never been done before, how nobody should doubt our will, that we must fulfill our promises.

What do you call a government program that isn’t subject to debate but instead requires spending whatever’s needed, no matter what? That’s the very definition of an entitlement. Iraq may be a war, but it’s essentially another huge entitlement program.

Arnold and George have no intention of cutting spending. They want to spend just as much, maybe even more, as Democrats do; the only difference is that Democrats are willing to pay for spending today with taxes today, while Republicans prefer that future generations pay for today’s spending.

It’s a good thing my in-laws are Democrats; otherwise, when they take us out to dinner, they’d stick me with the check.

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