David R. Henderson  

Kinsley on Budget Cutting

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Zinni's article [on why it's absolutely necessary to keep government funding of the U.S. Institute of Peace] is a good example of a genre of literature we'll be seeing a lot of as the president and Congress grapple with the federal deficit (and each other): the special pleading. Whether it takes the form of an op-ed piece, a speech, a press release or an open letter to the president, there are certain familiar elements. Among them:

1. Expression of general support for deficit reduction. Reference to easy answers (there are none). Reference to burden (all must share).

2. Reference to babies and bathwater. Former should not be discarded with latter.

3. This program/agency/tax break is different. A bargain for the taxpayers. Pays for itself many times over. To eliminate or cut would be bad for children/our troops.

4. Cost is small (a) as percentage of total budget; (b) compared with budget of Pentagon; (c) compared with projected cost of healthcare.

5. Optional comparisons to cost of just one jet fighter or 3.7 minutes of war on terror.

6. Names of famous people who support this program or tax cut, especially Colin Powell. Other good names: Madeleine Albright, Natalie Portman, George H.W. Bush (not W), Warren Buffett.

7. This is not about fair, responsible, across-the-board budget cutting. This is about the other side irresponsibly pursuing its ideological agenda, penalizing programs it doesn't like.

This last complaint, usually heard from Democrats about the budget that has passed the Republican-controlled House, is an odd one. If you're looking for places to save money, why wouldn't you concentrate on programs you don't approve of? Equal across-the-board cuts, of good programs and bad programs alike, are the opposite of responsible budgeting.


This is from Michael Kinsley, "You Can't Cut That," Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2011.

Hilarious, yet serious and on target.


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CATEGORIES: Fiscal Policy



COMMENTS (6 to date)
Tom Lee writes:

There is a #8: This is NOT the time to decrease federal spending, economic conditions being what there are.

Note: this one aplies whatever the state of the economy, since there is always someone who believes the economy needs "investment".

raja_r writes:

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ed writes:

Kinsley's article is pretty good, but his point about defense spending is silly. There is no set amount of defense spending that suddenly moves us from the category of "unsafe" to the category of "safe."

David R. Henderson writes:

@ed,
I'm pretty sure he was being ironic although it's not totally clear.
He writes:
But in the case of defense spending, notions like how much we can afford, or what it would be nice to have, are inappropriate. The value is not gradual or incremental. It is absolutely essential to spend whatever is necessary to keep our nation safe, and a total waste to spend a nickel more.
I know Kinsley has a subtle mind. There's no way he would have made that last statement except tongue in cheek.

Tracy W writes:

The idea that politicians shouldn't cut programmes that they don't like is particularly amusing, (and I have come across that.)

rpl writes:

Isn't #3, which says in essence, "costs outweigh the benefits," a valid reason to argue against cutting a program? And don't we expect it to be true for at least some programs? If we didn't, then dealing with the deficit would be easy: just cut everything, since none of it brings any net benefit.

I think the "drop in the bucket" argument (#4 and 5) also has some merit. If you're trying to count to 100 billion by ten-thousands, you're likely never to get there. In practice you will run out of tiny programs long before you accumulate the cuts you need, and you will be forced to tackle the big programs anyhow, so why not start with them? Since Kinsley didn't call out the cliche about deck chairs on the Titanic, I'll insert it here.

#7 may or may not be relevant to whether or not a program should be cut, but it is certainly true. And if Alice is going to give up her favorite programs in the name of fiscal responsibility, why shouldn't Bob do the same? Allowing Bob a pass on selectively going after Alice's programs is at best unfair. At worst it helps Alice to rally support for her programs, ensuring that nothing gets cut.

I'm not sure what point Kinsley is trying to make. We are never going to get to a balanced budget without taking on the big programs and looking past the politics of the next election. People who point this out are making a valid observation, one that should be obvious, but for some reason isn't. Kinsley's denial of those basic facts is baffling. How does he think the budget debate should be framed?

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