Skip to main content

Cuts too deep? No, not deep enough

By Matt Welch, Special to CNN
February 27, 2013 -- Updated 1509 GMT (2309 HKT)
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
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT