The Debate on Spending We Should Be Having

The federal budget is about so much more than just "more" or "less."

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It is a sign of our shrunken national ambitions that our policy debates today revolve almost entirely around the budget. There is little talk of better education, better quality of life, better government or a more perfect union. It is all a question of "more" or "less."

In such an environment, everyone is primarily concerned with protecting their own slice of the pie. Not surprisingly, then, my post last week about the need for the current generation of Americans and its leaders to do a better job of managing the costs it's leaving to young Americans engendered more pushback than usual – or that different readers interpreted the same piece, like a Rorschach test, as attacking whatever they hold most dear.

I tend to think that when I write about squeezing waste, inefficiency and stupidity out of government spending, what I'm really writing about is how to make government – however you conceive its purpose – do its job better. Every time I do so, however, my liberal friends invariably complain that I'm "buying into" the conservative argument for austerity. I find it sad that the left today reflexively finds discussion of spending public dollars wisely an assault on public spending generally.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

For instance, I received a sarcastic response from someone in Marin County, Calif., interpreting the suggestion that boomers take responsibility for leaving less debt to our children as a call for sackcloth and ashes. This not atypical response is oddly reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's reaction to energy efficiency as simply "running out of oil more slowly," a comparison that ought to give liberals some pause.

My Marin correspondent continued that "the real problem" isn't social spending but "corporatism and greedy banksterism." From the insights into Marinspeak that I gained growing up there, I recognized this as a sophisticated critique of our current deficit problems being largely attributable to the Great Recession and the need to simulate aggregate demand by getting bailout funds back from the banks, who don't seem to be putting them to work, and instead helping out ordinary Americans. Regular U.S. News readers know I agree that that would have been a better course five years ago. Just because it's probably impossible to undo that mistake today doesn't mean that progressives should just ignore the fiscal damage to our nation's future and spend more on boomers, however – two wrongs don't make a lefty.

Most liberals, however, believe that any talk of cutting spending is heresy and the solution to the deficit and debt issues – if one is even needed – is to raise taxes, particularly on the wealthy (which, of course, would leave most people in Marin County wearing sackcloth). On the other hand, my suggestion that we means-test entitlement programs for baby boomers – rather than leaving a larger deficit, and either tax hikes or benefit cuts, to the next generation – ironically led a libertarian blogger to chastise me as a statist who in fact wants to raise taxes and doesn't understand that "the real problem" is a national security state run amok.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

This is a particular apt week for addressing that issue, as there has been an unusually large number of news stories lately concerning the opportunities and need for savings in defense spending:

  • The United States has paid more than $150 million to companies in Afghanistan accused of helping to finance terrorist attacks on American soldiers.
    • U.S. forces are struggling to ensure that American taxpayer dollars aren't inadvertently funding the insurgency.
      • The Joint Chiefs of Staff offered a list itself of where to start cutting Pentagon spending.
        • The U.S. Army's effort to design a new camouflage uniform – which has taken three years and cost at least $2.9 million – appears to have stalled amidst Congressional concern over the military's expensive habit of letting each armed service design its own camouflage.
          • The U.S. military's top commanders, groping for ways to cope with a shrinking Pentagon budget, have agreed to a plan that would curb the growth of pay and benefits for housing, education and health because growing compensation costs otherwise will eat up a majority of the defense budget.
            • A U.S. military investigation found that building a $25 million regional headquarters in Afghanistan that local commanders said they didn't need or want wouldn't "violat[e any] law or regulation."
              • The Pentagon is "largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies," buying supplies it doesn't need, storing others long out of date, amassing "a backlog of more than half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts with outside vendors" and repeatedly "fall[ing] prey to fraud and theft that can go undiscovered for years."
              • [See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

                Now, none of this is to say that there is anything especially problematic about defense spending – in fact, quite the opposite. As I argued in another recent piece, the point is that defense should be considered like every other element of government spending: Due to the nature of virtually all large-scale human organizations generally, and governments specifically, there is not just waste and inefficiency but probably-not-so-smart-spending-if-you-stopped-and-really-thought-about-it in every type of operation, whether it's how we purchase, build and deploy exceedingly expensive fighter planes and carrier ships, how we conduct our welfare programs, how we manage assets most people don't think about like unused public buildings and lands or day-to-day fund balances or even (gasp!) entitlement programs.

                The bottom line is that we can all disagree about the proper aims of government in our society. But the real issues we face are not how we can spend more or less in the areas that concern us each the most, but how, as a country and a society, we can do better than we currently do in all these areas with the resources we have. In any endeavor – and especially in the history of nations – when we start focusing on dividing the outputs rather than rethinking the inputs to improve the outputs, we've stopped getting better. To me, that's the "real issue."

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