Liddick: Like tick and tock, tax cuts call for less spending (column)
January 8, 2018
Now for the hard part.
After the half-measures of tax reform — which will in fact put more money in most people's pockets on the theory that they know better how to spend their own wages than a gaggle of bureaucrats halfway across the country — we come to the other side of the equation: spending reform. Expect many to be stricken by an attack of the vapors.
Let's begin by dispensing with ignorance and misinformation. First, "mandatory spending," primarily Social Security, unemployment, Medicare, Medicaid and "other health programs," and interest on the national debt, account for 65 percent of the federal budget. In 2017, defense took up 15 percent, down from its average of 22 percent. Everything else the federal government does takes up the rest. So unless we want to eliminate that "everything else," mandatory spending is going to have to be cut, if we are serious about getting federal deficits and debt under control. Yes, that must include both Social Security and Medicare.
There is a built-in audience for demagoguery on this topic in the legions of hardworking Americans who for decades poured part of their salaries into these programs, and now expect benefits supposedly financed thereby. That would be a reasonable assumption had they paid into a private insurance scheme. But these are run by government, so what they bought instead was a Ponzi scheme, in which current ratepayers finance current beneficiaries. There is no "lockbox," and the "trust fund" is full of IOUs for money borrowed to finance other government programs. Both systems flirt with bankruptcy, which threatens every other category of government social spending. Radical reform of the entire system is long overdue, and many current recipients may be hurt. They must understand that this harm comes not from present cupidity as they will doubtless be told by opportunistic politicians exploiting the sin of envy, but from a decades-long legacy of indifference, fear and political opportunism that prevented action when it would have been far less painless. Mostly to further the agendas of the aforesaid opportunists.
There will also be moral objection to any reduction in federal programs directing money to the less-well-off and the elderly. Those of a certain religious flavor will certainly be reminded that we are directed to help the poor and weak among us. The disconnection in this argument is, the proverbial rich man was admonished to "give his money to the poor," not to "give his money to Caesar, that he may spread the wealth around to those he found worthy." The latter is, I believe, from the Gospel according to St. Barack, not even included in the apocrypha. Christian charity should be personal, direct and not fulfilled by taxation.
How might one begin with reform of mandatory spending? The most politically expedient method might be with an across-the-board cut in all programs adjusted to produce a modest surplus. This would avoid the poisonous topic of who gets the blame for goring what constituency, but it would perforce mean that those receiving the least would get less – raising the "fairness" argument to halt any action, necessary or not.
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An alternative might be to establish means and drug tests, work requirements, proofs of identity and other gateways to federal monies, as Bill Clinton did when pushed by the Republican Congress of 1995-6. But today this might be a heavier lift; it is after all making judgements about potential recipients' lifestyles and would be immediately subject to criticism on the wilder shores of the left for misogyny and racism – as it was in 1996.
Or one might chose to apply the metric of accomplishment to all government programs, and let the chips fall where they may. But such an approach would require Congress to actually work to define, then prioritize, national goals; Executive branch bureaucrats to set measurable markers of progress toward those goals, and to be honest in their evaluation of achievement. In a few areas this would be straightforward: did NASA successfully land a mobile lab on Mars? Was the bridge built on time and under budget? Elsewhere, this is probably impossible due to politics: did this or that anti-poverty program eliminate poverty? Did these education grants increase students' knowledge and ability to express that knowledge? Such measurements would immediately bog down in discussion over the meaning of "is," rendering the approach useless.
But a beginning must be made and a solution to the problem found. The fiscal path we are on ends at an abyss, and we are hurrying along it. Increasing taxation will only slow the economy and decrease revenues, speeding the journey; we must slow spending instead.
It's for the children, yes?
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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