The Balanced Budget, and Why It Won’t Happen (Reason One of Many)

It’s come to this: Esquire, a men’s magazine (although a reputable one), has put together a plan for slashing the federal deficit more comprehensive than anything put on the table by the Republican Party. Or the Democratic Party, for that matter, but let’s focus on the Republicans, because they’re the ones who’ve put themselves in the ludicrous position of (1) campaigning on this issue, while simultaneously (2) campaigning on issues that render the goal impossible.

Anyways, Esquire’s plan is both aggressive and feasible, but ultimately impossible. As made plain by the plan, the clearest chance for savings comes in cuts to military budgets to accomodate and respond to the new defense paradigm: as surely as Napoleonic line-warfare ended with World War I, the era of pitched battles between nation-states is long-gone. America’s goal must not be to field a large force at home or in Europe — because we will likely never need to, ever again — but to project power strategically. Carrier groups and small strike forces become more important than tanks and infantry divisions. Retooling the American military to meet new challenges and maintain global hegemony, efficiently, is a necessary and worthwhile goal, but not one that the current political climate will tolerate. Our oversized military (and nuclear arsenal, too) have become the American equivalent of the British monarchy: something expensive we keep around as a matter of irrational national pride, rather than out of any need.

If American military power can be retained and enhanced by emphasizing effectiveness rather than size, and while cutting the budget, it should go without saying that this is worth exploring.  But as it stands, it will go without ever being said.


  1. I’ve said it over at Mike’s place, and I’ll say it here. Even this plan, as glorious as it is, won’t lead to a balanced budget. Won’t even come close. if you poke around on the Office of Management and Budget website, and it won’t take long, you will find out that for the Federal Fiscal Year 2011 (whose budget languishes in the grip of the Re-Election Recess), the deficit that the White House is projecting is EQUAL to ALL discretionary spending in the federal budget (Which is about 1/3rd of total expenses). Mandatory spending – Social Security, Medicare, Medic-aid, debt service, and part of the Defense budget – make the other 2/3rds.

    So you can make in-roads by cutting discretionary defense spending, but you can’t achieve fiscal sanity, much less balance anything. to balance it, you have to cut ALL Discreationary spending, cut mandatoryspending, or cut and increase revenues (Taxes). Won’t work any other way.

    1. So then where do we cut if we want to make a dent?

  2. Regardless of whether it’s a complete solution, isn’t this a worthwhile exercise?

    1. Sure, but something like 1/2 to 2/3rds of Defense are on the mandatory side so it wouldn’t really get us as far as one might think . . . .
      As to Mike’s question about cuts, I’d start with this – what do we want, as a Nation, to do? See all those programs that folks hate – all of us bureaucrats who make such easy pundit fodder – we all have jobs because Congress (of both political persuasions) passed laws telling us to do something which the President then signed. Those same Congresses then passed appropriations to fund the government to do those things. And very little of those directives in federal statute have ever been rolled back. So, what do we, as a nation want to do?

      Then, what resources do we need to do it? I have a major component of the national federal program I help manage – the science component – that takes about $70 Million per year to do its work (out of $240 million or so; $100 Million of which is grants to states and Tribes), and is managing with that money to produce science products that meet 18% of our identified need for “Adequate” science that natural resource managers can actually use to make sound decisions. Some would say that, at 18% production, we ought to cut that Program Component, that we’re not efficient enough. Ok, perhaps a fair argument, but if we eliminate it, and take the $70 Million to use elsewhere, then those same managers – who are doing what Congress told them to do remember – will have no information to make decisions on. And no, universities can’t fill the gap, nor can state agencies – they don’t have the bodies to do the work either or the funds. And, since many of the federal laws contain provisions that allow citizens to sue the feds for not acting, if the managers have no information, the costs may well go up defending more and more lawsuits.

      So could I give you a laundry list of cuts? Sure, but each one would be subject to this sort of review. Each one could well leave additional costs – to other federal, state or local agencies – in their wakes.

      And at the end of the day, there still wouldn’t be enough to cut to eliminate the deficit without tax increases.

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