Skip to main content

Cuts too deep? No, not deep enough

By Matt Welch, Special to CNN
updated 10:09 AM EST, Wed February 27, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matt Welch: Politicians have been squawking about dire fallout of forced spending cuts
  • He says Congress and Obama agreed on them in 2011 deal, and they're necessary
  • He asks: What have we gotten from huge increase in federal government's budget?
  • Welch: Debt at 100% of GDP, with boomers getting ready to queue up for benefits

Editor's note: Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason and co-author of "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America" (Public Affairs).

(CNN) -- As any ex-jock can tell you, any time you try exercising a muscle that has gone unused for a decade or more, something predictable happens: It barks like hell.

This is what we're seeing in this last pathetic run-up to the forced spending cuts agreed to by Congress and the president in July 2011 as a fail-safe in case the federal government couldn't agree on a totally necessary but politically difficult settlement to address the country's long-term fiscal unsustainability.

"Hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventive care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings," President Barack Obama warned. (PolitiFact verdict: half true. "There is no indication that Americans will lose their insurance coverage or access to all primary care because of the sequester," said PolitiFact, but added "pretty close to 'hundreds of thousands'" could lose flu vaccinations and cancer screenings.)

A trio of Republican senators (John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte) jointly bemoaned "the calamitous effects that budget sequestration would have on our nation's economy and security."

Matt Welch
Matt Welch

Politicians have been trying to outdo each other in deploying what the neoliberal Washington Monthly founder Charles Peters coined in 1976 as the "firemen first" principle -- the notion that "the public will support (the Clever Bureaucrat's) valiant fight against the budget reduction only if essential services are endangered. Thus, C.B. always picks on teachers, policemen, firemen first."

So an already rattled nation is being spooked by horror stories of three-hour airport security lines, delayed background check for gun purchases and criminals running freely through the streets. All this for a spending cut that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will be around $44 billion in 2013, a tiny sliver of the federal budget. Imagine the squeals if it included significant cuts.

Zelizer: GOP will get blame for cuts

No doubt there will be those who find such fear-mongering persuasive. But for the rest of us, it suggests a rather pressing and relevant question: Just what, precisely, did we get from doubling the cost of the federal government between 2000 and 2010?

If the bureaucrats can't produce an explanation for the price increase of government, then they should not expect their budgets to be rubber-stamped by an already suffering public.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



So the squawking you hear is from a government money-machine having difficulty adapting to a political universe that no longer accepts automatic annual increases. And we'll keep hearing it until the moment politicians have the courage to align government expenditures within miles of revenue.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, who died in January, warned us three decades ago about the "permanent disconnect" between revenue and spending, brought about by politicians scared of charging taxpayers full freight for government goodies.

Opinion: The fairy tale on spending cuts

"The attractiveness of financing spending by debt issue to the elected politicians should be obvious," he wrote. "Borrowing allows spending to be made that will yield immediate political payoffs without the incurring of any immediate political cost."

Countdown to cuts: Where's Congress?
Governor: Forced cuts will hurt economy

We are living with the results: National debt greater than 100% of annual gross domestic product and no end in sight, just as the baby boomers stop working and start sucking down expensive federal entitlements.

Even if borrowing costs remain at their historic lows in perpetuity, this kind of debt overhang is more dangerous than any mild bureaucratic shuffle necessitated by the 1% trim. Why? In their controversial April 2012 National Bureau for Economic Research working paper, economists Carmen M. Reinhart, Vincent R. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff concluded that when countries carry debt of more than 90% of GDP for five or more consecutive years, economic growth gets chopped down by more than a whole percentage point each year for decades.

What's the best method for reversing a debt crisis? In a 2009 paper (PDF), Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna examined more than 100 debt-reduction efforts worldwide since 1970, and asserted that "spending cuts are much more effective than tax increases in stabilizing the debt and avoiding economic downturns." The authors found "several episodes in which spending cuts adopted to reduce deficits have been associated with economic expansions rather than recessions."

Opinion: Cuts will turn off voters GOP is courting

Taxpayers shouldn't be fearing the forced spending cuts, they should be fearing that the cuts don't go nearly far enough. And politicians should realize that short-term debt service and long-term entitlements are going to keep shrinking the money left over for doling out goodies. Like other things that can't go on forever, fiscal irresponsibility won't. Time to get those muscles in shape.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Welch.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 5:15 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT