GOP's plan to cut spending: sacrifice the future

2011-02-15T00:00:00Z GOP's plan to cut spending: sacrifice the futurePaul Krugman New York Times News Service Arizona Daily Star
February 15, 2011 12:00 am  • 

On Friday, House Republicans unveiled their proposal for immediate cuts in federal spending. Uncharacteristically, they failed to accompany the release with a catchy slogan. So I'd like to propose one: Eat the Future.

I'll explain in a minute. First, let's talk about the dilemma the GOP faces.

Republican leaders claim that the midterms gave them a mandate for sharp cuts in government spending. While many voters say that they want lower spending, it turns out that they only want to cut spending on other people.

That's the lesson from a new survey by the Pew Research Center, in which Americans were asked whether they favored higher or lower spending in a variety of areas. It turns out that they want more, not less, spending on most things, including education and Medicare. They're evenly divided about aid to the unemployed and defense.

The only thing they clearly want to cut is foreign aid, which most Americans believe, wrongly, accounts for a large share of the federal budget.

Pew also asked people how they would like to see states close their budget deficits. Do they favor cuts in either education or health care, the main expenses states face? No. Do they favor tax increases? No. The only deficit-reduction measure with significant support was cuts in public-employee pensions - and even there the public was evenly divided.

The moral is clear. Republicans don't have a mandate to cut spending; they have a mandate to repeal the laws of arithmetic.

How can voters be so ill informed? In their defense, bear in mind that they have jobs, children to raise, parents to take care of. They don't have the time or the incentive to study the federal budget, let alone state budgets. So they rely on what they hear.

And what they've been hearing ever since Ronald Reagan is that their hard-earned dollars are going to waste, paying for vast armies of useless bureaucrats (payroll is only 5 percent of federal spending) and welfare queens driving Cadillacs.

Which brings me back to the Republican dilemma. The new House majority promised to deliver $100 billion in spending cuts - and its members face the prospect of tea-party primary challenges if they fail to deliver. Yet the public opposes cuts in programs it likes. What's a politician to do?

The answer is obvious: sacrifice the future. Focus the cuts on programs whose benefits aren't immediate.

If you didn't understand that logic, you might be puzzled by many items in the House GOP proposal. Why cut a billion dollars from a highly successful program that provides supplemental nutrition to pregnant mothers, infants, and young children, or $648 million from nuclear-nonproliferation activities or $578 million from the IRS enforcement budget?

Once you understand the imperatives Republicans face, however, it all makes sense. By slashing future-oriented programs, they can deliver instant cuts, without imposing too much immediate pain on voters. And as for future costs - a population damaged by childhood malnutrition, an increased chance of terrorist attacks, a revenue system undermined by widespread tax evasion - tomorrow is another day.

In a better world, politicians would explain that discretionary spending has little to do with the long-run imbalance between spending and revenues. They would explain that solving it requires reining in health-care costs and increasing taxes to pay for the programs Americans want.

But Republican leaders can't do that, of course.

And so they had to produce something like Friday's proposal, a plan that would save remarkably little money but would do a remarkably large amount of harm.

Paul Krugman writes for The New York Times.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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