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Posts Tagged ‘Sequestration’

There’s a saying in the sports world about how last-minute comebacks are examples of “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.”

I don’t like that phrase because it reminds me of the painful way my beloved Georgia Bulldogs were defeated a couple of weeks ago by Auburn.

But I also don’t like the saying because it describes what Obama and other advocates of big government must be thinking now that Republicans apparently are about to do the opposite and “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

More specifically, the GOP appears willing to give away the sequester’s real and meaningful spending restraint and replace that fiscal discipline with a package of gimmicks and new revenues.

I warned last month that something bad might happen to the sequester, but even a pessimist like me didn’t envision such a big defeat for fiscal responsibility.

You may be thinking to yourself that even the “stupid party” couldn’t be foolish enough to save Obama from his biggest defeat, but check out these excerpts from a Wall Street Journal report.

Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), chief negotiators for their parties, are closing in on a deal… At issue are efforts to craft a compromise that would ease across-the-board spending cuts due to take effect in January, known as the sequester, and replace them with a mix of increased fees and cuts in mandatory spending programs.

But the supposed cuts wouldn’t include any genuine entitlement reform. And there would be back-door tax hikes.

Officials familiar with the talks say negotiators are stitching together a package of offsets to the planned sequester cuts that would include none of the major cuts in Medicare or other entitlement programs that Mr. Ryan has wanted… Instead, it would include more targeted and arcane measures, such as increased fees for airport-security and federal guarantees of private pensions.

But the package may get even worse before the ink is dry.

Democrats on Thursday stepped up their demands in advance of the closing days of negotiations between Ms. Murray and Mr. Ryan. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) brought a fresh demand to the table by saying she wouldn’t support any budget deal unless in included or was accompanied by an agreement to renew expanded unemployment benefits that expire before the end of the year—which would be a major threat to any deal.

Gee, wouldn’t that be wonderful. Not only may GOPers surrender the sequester and acquiesce to some tax hikes, but they might also condemn unemployed people to further joblessness and despair.

That’s even worse than the part of the plan that would increase taxes on airline travel to further subsidize the Keystone Cops of the TSA.

But look at the bright side…at least for DC insiders. If the sequester is gutted, that will be a big victory for lobbyists. That means they’ll get larger bonuses, which means their kids will have even more presents under the Christmas tree.

As for the rest of the nation? Well, you can’t make an omelet without scrambling a few eggs.

P.S. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that this looming agreement isn’t as bad as some past budget deals, such as the read-my-lips fiasco of 1990.

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There’s a joke in Washington that Democrats are the evil party and Republicans are the stupid party.

Except this joke isn’t very funny since a lot of bad policy occurs when gullible GOPers get lured into “bipartisan” deals that expand government. Consider, for example, all the tax-hiking budget deals – such as the “read my lips” capitulation of the first President Bush – that enable more spending.

To be fair, sometimes Republicans are placed in a no-win situation. During the “fiscal cliff” discussions last year, Obama held the upper hand since he would get a huge automatic tax hike if nothing happened. So the final agreement, which resulted in a smaller tax increase, was actually better (or, to be more accurate, less worse) than I was expecting.

But in other cases, Republicans should prevail because they have the stronger hand. That’s the situation we’re in today with the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.

The sequester, which resulted from the 2011 debt-limit fight, was an unambiguous defeat for Obama and a significant victory for advocates of smaller government. And it was a defeat for all the lobbyists, special interests, and crony capitalists that get rich when there’s more money in Washington.

Though I don’t want to exaggerate. The “cuts” merely reduce the projected growth of federal spending.

But after years of unconstrained spending by both Bush and Obama, any fiscal restraint is a welcome development. Indeed, the sequester helps to explain why we’ve seen two consecutive years of lower spending in Washington for the first time since the 1950s.

No wonder Obama is desperate to cancel sequestration, even to the point of making himself a laughingstock to cartoonists.

But maybe Obama will have the last laugh because some Republicans are negotiating with Democrats to undo some of the benefits of sequestration. Here are some excerpts from a Politico report.

…an agreement may not be so elusive after all. Hopes are growing that Ryan and Murray could reach a narrow deal to replace a portion of the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, according to lawmakers and senior aides involved in the discussions. …On Tuesday, several key lawmakers and aides said there was about a 50-50 chance, if not better, that a small deal could be reached — a much better prognosis than many had anticipated. Murray said in an interview Tuesday that she’s in “very good conversations” with Ryan. “The goal here is to replace sequestration with responsible spending cuts and revenue,” Murray said.

I shudder to think what Senator Murray means by “responsible spending cuts.” Presumably gimmicks.

But we don’t need a vivid imagination to know what she means by “revenue.” The real question is why Republicans would be willing to “feed the beast” with more revenue, particularly when it means eviscerating the genuine spending restraint imposed by sequestration.

It even appears as if Republicans are willing to increase unemployment as part of a bad deal.

House and Senate appropriators are putting major pressure on Murray and Ryan… Revenue raisers being discussed include increased Transportation Security Administration fees… As an extra bargaining chip, Republicans would consider including an extension of extended unemployment benefits, which expire on Dec. 28. …Murray has made clear she won’t agree to any structural changes to Medicare or Social Security, particularly without significant revenue increases.

So let’s summarize this issue.

Current law is the sequester, which is a big victory.

The big spenders understandably want to eliminate or weaken the sequester, and would be especially happy to get more revenue coming to Washington.

Paul Ryan and the other Republican negotiators have the upper hand since the sequester continues if there’s no agreement.

So we have to ask ourselves why GOPers are even bothering to negotiate. There are two possible answers.

1. The “stupid party” joke actually is an accurate assessment of mental ability and Republicans are easy to trick because of their developmental challenges.

2. Republicans pretend to be fiscal conservatives when talking to voters but secretly want to enable more spending by sabotaging the sequester.

I’m actually being a bit unfair. What’s really happening is that there are divisions inside the GOP. A majority of the Republican caucus presumably understands that they hold a winning hand and they’re content to maintain current law and let the sequester continue.

But the Republicans on the Appropriations Committee tend to dislike the sequester since it reduces their ability to spend other people’s money in exchange for political support.

They correctly complain that America’s main fiscal problem is entitlement spending, so you can understand why they’re a bit irked that their programs are being restrained while boondoggles such as Obamacare are putting us deeper in a fiscal hole.

But that’s not an argument to waste money on so-called discretionary programs. Moreover, the appropriators are wildly wrong when they assert that appropriations spending already has been “cut to the bone.”

There are also some hawks who accurately complain that defense spending incurs a disproportionate share of the sequester, but they are wrong when they say this endangers national security. After all, defense spending still grows under sequestration and America will still account for nearly 50 percent of the world’s military spending.

So what’s the bottom line?

In an ideal world, policy makers would focus first on desperately needed entitlement reform. And I suspect many members of the Appropriations and Defense Committees would grumble a lot less about restraints on discretionary spending if real structural reforms to so-called mandatory programs were being implemented.

But we don’t live in that world. The sad reality of Washington is that genuine entitlement reform won’t happen with Obama in the White House. But that’s not an argument for surrendering on sequestration and allowing discretionary spending to climb at a faster rate.

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In an interview with Neil Cavuto earlier this month, I mocked proponents of big government for their hysterical predictions of bad things happening under sequestration. And cartoonists had a field day making the same point (see here and here).

The White House obviously wasn’t happy about the sequester, in part because they like bigger government and also because sequestration was a big defeat for the President.

Well, now the Obama Administration sees a chance for revenge and redemption. The President’s appointees, by choosing to furlough air traffic controllers, are seeking to turn air travel into something akin to a visit to the Post Office or DMV. It’s clear that the White House hopes to recreate momentum for a tax hike as an alternative to sequestration.

But they’re not exactly being subtle.

The Wall Street Journal exposes the White House’s political motivated chicanery, starting with the very important point that the FAA’s budget – even after sequestration – is as large as it was in 2010. Yet the White House is manipulating the sequester to cause the maximum amount of inconvenience for taxpayers.

The sequester cuts about $637 million from the FAA, which is less than 4% of its $15.9 billion 2012 budget, and it limits the agency to what it spent in 2010. The White House decided to translate this 4% cut that it has the legal discretion to avoid into a 10% cut for air traffic controllers. Though controllers will be furloughed for one of every 10 working days, four of every 10 flights won’t arrive on time.

The Obama Administration is pretending that it’s merely following the law, but the WSJ editorial debunks that notion.

This is a political pose to make the sequester more disruptive. Legally speaking, the sequester applies at a more general level known as “accounts.” The air traffic account includes 15,000 controllers out of 31,000 employees. The White House could keep the controllers on duty simply by allocating more furlough days to these other non-essential workers. Instead, the FAA is even imposing the controller furlough on every airport equally, not prioritizing among the largest and busiest airports. …ever since Al Gore launched a training initiative to increase the productivity of air traffic controllers in 1998, productivity has continued to fall. A larger workforce is now in charge of a smaller workload as the number of flights has dropped by 23%.

I didn’t realize that controllers were doing less work over time, but I’m not surprised to learn that superfluous bureaucrats at the FAA are being protected.

But the WSJ doesn’t go far enough. My Cato colleague Chris Edwards has a column in the Daily Caller that outlines the inefficiency of the FAA.

The federal budget sequester is interfering with the air traffic control (ATC) system and snarling up air traffic. As usual, politicians are pointing fingers of blame at everybody but themselves. But politicians are the ones who have strapped the ATC system to the chaotic federal budget. And they’re the ones who have insisted on running ATC as a bureaucracy, rather than freeing it to become the high-tech private business that it should be. …Last year Bloomberg reported: “More than one-third of the 30 contracts critical to building a new U.S. air-traffic system are over budget and half are delayed, a government audit concluded.

Chris then takes the logical next step and says the system should be privatized. Which is exactly what happened in his home country of Canada.

To run smoothly and efficiently, our ATC system should be given independence from the government. We should privatize the system, as Canada has done very successfully. …Canada provides an excellent model for U.S. reforms. Canada’s ATC system is run by the nonprofit corporation Nav Canada, which is separate from the government. Like any private business, it raises revenues from its customers to cover its operational costs and capital investments. The company’s financial statements for 2012 show revenues and expenses of $1.2 billion, with $125 million allocated to capital expenditures. Unlike the U.S. system, Nav Canada is self-supporting and not subsidized.

I’ve already written on this topic, citing some good analysis from Canada’s Financial Post, and the evidence is overwhelming that the private system in Canada works much better than the inefficient bureaucracy we have in the United States.

Let’s close with a Michael Ramirez cartoon. The “politics” and “waste” markings are very appropriate.

FAA Sequester

Lost in this controversy, by the way, is any recognition that sequestration barely makes a dent in the federal budget. There are some small first-year cuts in a few programs, but the wasteful behemoth known as the federal government is barely nicked.

To be more specific, the net effect of the sequester is that the burden of government spending grows by $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years rather than $2.5 trillion.

So don’t pay any attention to the hyperbole and hysteria from the special interest groups in Washington. The sequester is a tiny – and desirable – step in the direction of fiscal responsibility.

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Are we about to see a new kinder-and-gentler Obama? Has the tax-and-spend President of the past four years been replaced by a fiscal moderate?

That’s certainly the spin we’re getting from the White House about the President’s new budget. Let’s look at this theme, predictably regurgitated in a Washington Post report.

President Obama will release a budget next week that proposes significant cuts to Medicare and Social Security and fewer tax hikes than in the past, a conciliatory approach…the document will incorporate the compromise offer Obama made to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) last December in the discussions over the “fiscal cliff” – which included $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction through spending cuts and tax increases. …unlike the Republican budget that passed the House last month, Obama’s budget does not balance within 10 years.

Since America’s fiscal challenge is the overall burden of government spending, I’m not overly worried about the fact that Obama’s budget doesn’t get to balance.

But I am curious whether Obama truly is proposing a “conciliatory” budget. Are the tax hikes smaller? Are the supposed spending cuts larger?

Actually, there are no genuine spending cuts since the President’s budget is based on dishonest baseline budgeting. At best, we’re simply talking about slowing the growth of government.

But since Mitchell’s Golden Rule is based on the very modest goal of having government grow slower than the private sector, it’s possible that Obama may be proposing something worthwhile.

But possible isn’t the same as probable. Indeed, it appears that the budget is predicated on a giant bait-and-switch since the beneficial spending restraint imposed by sequestration would be repealed!

Obama’s budget proposal, however, would eliminate sequestration.

This appears almost as an afterthought in the Washington Post article, but it should be the lead story. The White House wants to get rid of a policy that genuinely limits the growth of spending.

We won’t have the official numbers until the budget is released next Wednesday, but I’ll be very curious to see whether the supposed spending cuts elsewhere in his budget are greater than or less than the spending increases that will occur if sequestration is canceled. Particularly since the President also is proposing lots of new spending on everything from early child education to brain mapping.

Moreover, it seems as though Obama tax numbers are based on dodgy math as well. The White House is claiming that this is a “conciliatory” budget because he’s no longer proposing $1.6 trillion of tax hikes.

The budget is more conservative than Obama’s earlier proposals, which called for $1.6 trillion in new taxes and fewer cuts to health and domestic spending programs. Obama is seeking to raise $580 billion in tax revenue by limiting deductions for the wealthy and closing loopholes for certain industries like oil and gas. Those changes are in addition to the increased tobacco taxes and more limited retirement accounts for the wealthy that are meant to pay for new spending.

Let’s try to disentangle the preceding passage. The President wants $580 billion of new taxes from “deductions” and “loopholes.” But he also wants an unknown pile of revenue from new tobacco taxes and from restricting IRAs. And keep in mind that he already got $600 billion as part of the fiscal cliff.

Until we get official numbers, we can’t say anything with certainty, but I’ll be checking on Wednesday to see how much revenue the President intends to grab as a result of the tobacco and IRA provisions. Suffice to say that I won’t be surprised if the net impact of all his tax hikes is close to $1.6 trillion. Especially since he’s also proposing to manipulate CPI data, a change that would generate another $100 billion in revenues.

In other words, the revenue side of his budget likely will be a bait-and-switch scam, just like the spending side is a joke once you understand that he wants to get rid of sequestration.

I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that my concerns will be validated next Wednesday and we’ll see another budget that has no real entitlement reform and more class-warfare tax hikes.

P.S. The budget approved by the House of Representatives avoided any tax increases and restrained spending to that it will grow by an average of 3.4 percent annually. Not exactly draconian, but that approach does balance the budget in 10 years.

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As part of my “Question of the Week” series, I had to decide which department of the federal government was most deserving of abolition.

With a target-rich environment of waste, fraud, and abuse in Washington, that wasn’t an easy question to answer. But I decided to pick the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and I had some good reasons for that choice.

Well, thanks to the sequester, we can say that we’ve achieved 1.9 percent of our goal. Here are some blurbs from a Reuters report.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Monday said it plans to shut its doors for a total of seven days between May and September due to budget cuts and will furlough more than 9,000 employees on those days. …The agency will determine the exact shutdown dates at a later time.

The motto of special interests

This is what I call a good start.

You won’t be surprised to learn, though, that the bureaucracy is whining that these tiny cutbacks will have horrible effects.

In cataloging the impact of sequestration to a Senate panel last month, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan warned lawmakers that the government spending cuts would have harsh consequences for housing programs and could threaten Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts in the U.S. Northeast. “The ripple effects are enormous because of how central housing is to our economy,” Donovan told lawmakers.

Well, I hope that the “cuts” will have “harsh consequences for housing programs.” I’ve read Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution, and nowhere does it say that housing is a function of the federal government.

And I’ve also explained that disaster relief is not Washington’s responsibility.

Most worthless department in Washington?

Last but not least, I agree that housing is important to our economy. But that’s precisely why I don’t want the federal government involved.

Didn’t we learn from the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac debacle that bad things happen when the federal government tries to subsidize that sector.

Heck, I don’t even want tax preferences for housing.

No wonder I picked the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the background for my video on bloated and wasteful bureaucracy.

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I believe in the First Amendment, so I would never support legislation to restrict political speech or curtail the ability of people to petition the government.

That being said, I despise the corrupt Washington game of obtaining unearned wealth thanks to the sleazy interaction of lobbyists, politicians, bureaucrats, and interest groups.

So you can imagine my unfettered joy when reading about how this odious process is being curtailed by sequestration. Here are some cheerful details from story in Roll Call.

…sequester cuts…reflect not only Washington’s political paralysis but a bitter lobbying failure for K Street interests across the board. From university professors and scientists to cancer victims, defense contractors and federal workers, hundreds of advocacy, trade and labor groups have lobbied aggressively for months to head off the cuts. They’ve run ads, testified on Capitol Hill, staged demonstrations and hounded lawmakers, all to no avail. …the path forward could be a lobbying nightmare.

Reading the story, I recalled a Charles Addams cartoon from my childhood. Thanks to the magic of Al Gore’s Internet, I found it.

Slightly modified to capture my spirit of elation, here it is for you to enjoy.

Charles Addams Cartoon

Except I like to think I’m a bit more prepossessing than the Uncle Fester character, but let’s not get hung up on details.

What matters is that sequestration was a much-needed and very welcome victory for taxpayers. Obama suffered a rare defeat, as did the cronyists who get rich by working the system.

To be sure, all that we’ve achieved is a tiny reduction in the growth of federal spending (the budget will be $2.4 trillion bigger in 10 years rather than $2.5 trillion bigger). But a journey of many trillions of dollars begins with a first step.

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When I last checked, Henry Payne was winning the bronze medal in the contest to identify the best political cartoonist.

You can see why by checking out this cartoon about Washington’s reaction to sequestration, which (gasp!) slightly slows the growth of the federal budget so that it is only $2.4 trillion bigger 10 years from now rather than $2.5 trillion bigger.

Payne Sequester Cartoon

What makes the cartoon so effective is not just the humor, but also the fact that it makes clear that government is too big and it also debunks the Keynesian notion that bad things will happen if we have even an itsy-bitsy degree of fiscal discipline.

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Triggered by an appearance on Canadian TV, I asked yesterday why we should believe anti-sequester Keynesians. They want us to think that a very modest reduction in the growth of government spending will hurt the economy, yet Canada enjoyed rapid growth in the mid-1990s during a period of substantial budget restraint.

I make a similar point in this debate with Robert Reich, noting that  the burden of government spending was reduced as a share of economic output during the relatively prosperous Reagan years and Clinton years.

Being a magnanimous person, I even told Robert he should take credit for the Clinton years since he was in the cabinet as Labor Secretary. Amazingly, he didn’t take me up on my offer.

Anyhow, these two charts show the stark contrast between the fiscal policy of Reagan and Clinton compared to Bush..

Reagan-Clinton-Bush Domestic Spending

And there’s lots of additional information comparing the fiscal performance of various presidents here, here, and here.

For more information on Reagan and Clinton, this video has the details.

Which brings us back to the original issue.

The Keynesians fear that a modest reduction in the growth of government (under the sequester, the federal government will grow $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years rather than $2.5 trillion) will somehow hurt the economy.

But government spending grew much slower under Reagan and Clinton than it has during the Bush-Obama years, yet I don’t think anybody would claim the economy in recent years has been more robust than it was in the 1980s and 1990s.

And if somebody does make that claim, just show them this remarkable chart (if they want to laugh, this Michael Ramirez cartoon makes the same point).

So perhaps the only logical conclusion to reach is that government is too big and that Keynesian economics is wrong.

I don’t think I’ll ever convince Robert Reich, but hopefully the rest of the world can be persuaded by real-world evidence.

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Public finance experts are quite familiar with the budgetary shenanigans of cossetted government bureaucracies.

They even have terms to describe how agencies and departments try to manipulate outcomes by claiming that any requirement for fiscal restraint will necessitate cuts to the most politically popular parts of the budget.

  • The “fireman first principle” – Describes how local government bodies (often coordinating with local politicians) will claim that firemen will have to be laid off and/or firehouses will have to close if there is any budgetary discipline. You can replace firefighters with cops or teachers if you want. The key point is to divert attention from the countless ways that local governments waste money by focusing on the few things that voters actually care about.
  • The “Washington Monument syndrome” – Based on a real-world example during the 1970s of the National Park Service claiming it would have to shut down tourist access to popular Washington-area sites if it was subject to fiscal restraint, the modern-day equivalent is President Obama scaring people with hysterical assertions about threats to food safety and airline operations.

Thomas Sowell clearly understands this racket.

Back in my teaching days, many years ago, one of the things I liked to ask the class to consider was this: Imagine a government agency with only two tasks: (1) building statues of Benedict Arnold and (2) providing life-saving medications to children. If this agency’s budget were cut, what would it do? The answer, of course, is that it would cut back on the medications for children. Why? Because that would be what was most likely to get the budget cuts restored. If they cut back on building statues of Benedict Arnold, people might ask why they were building statues of Benedict Arnold in the first place.

Bingo. Bulls-eye. A perfect analysis of bureaucratic incentives and public-choice economics.

Sowell then describes what’s now happening in Washington.

The Obama administration is following the same pattern. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, released thousands of illegal aliens from prisons to save money — and create alarm. The Federal Aviation Administration says it is planning to cut back on the number of air traffic controllers, which would, at a minimum, create delays for airline passengers, in addition to fears for safety that can create more public alarm. …it serves Obama’s interest to maximize the damage and the public alarm, which he can direct against Republicans. President Obama has said that he would veto legislation to let him choose what to cut. That should tell us everything we need to know about the utter cynicism of this glib man.

The political cartoonists also are having a field day making fun of Obama’s silly demagoguery.

Let’s start with Michael Ramirez. You can see why he’s currently leading in the best-cartoonist poll.

Sequester Cartoon Ramirez 4

Nate Beeler also has a good contribution to the debate. The President is acting like the world is going to end because spending is going to be “slashed” by 1.2 percent, which means – gasp! – that spending will “only” grow by $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years.

Yet somehow Armageddon has not occurred.

Sequester Cartoon Beeler 4

Indeed, the worst possible outcome for Obama and the other statists is that people notice zero negative impact when spending is restrained.

This Steve Kelley cartoon is very appealing to me because it shows the President going after the sequester when the real problem is an excessive burden of government spending.

Sequester Cartoon Kelley 4

Last but not least, we have a very good Scott Stantis cartoon.

Sequester Cartoon Stantis 4

The Stantis cartoon is particularly insightful because the GOP has won the battle, but the war is not over.

As I noted yesterday, Obama will have several additional opportunities to undo the sequester savings.

Thomas Jefferson was right when he warned that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

P.S. You can enjoy more sequester cartoons here, here, and here.

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In this appearance on Canadian TV, I  debunk anti-sequester hysteria, pointing out that “automatic budget cuts” merely restrain government so that it grows $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years rather than $2.5 trillion.

I also point out that we shouldn’t worry about government employees getting a slight haircut since federal bureaucrats are overcompensated. Moreover, I warn that some agencies may deliberately try to inconvenience people in an attempt to extort more tax revenue.

But I think the most important point in the interview was the discussion of what happened in Canada in the 1990s.

This example is important because the Obama White House is making the Keynesian argument that a smaller burden of government spending somehow will translate into less growth and fewer jobs.

Nobody should believe them, of course, since they used this same discredited theory to justify the so-called stimulus and all their predictions were wildly wrong.

But the failed 2009 stimulus showed the bad things that happen when government spending rises. Maybe the big spenders want us to think the relationship doesn’t hold when government gets put on a diet?

Well, here’s some data from the International Monetary Fund showing that the Canadian economy enjoyed very strong growth when policymakers imposed a near-freeze on government outlays between 1992 and 1997.

Canada - Less Spending = More Growth

For more information on this remarkable period of fiscal restraint, as well as evidence of what happened in other nations that curtailed government spending, here’s a video with lots of additional information.

By the way, we also have a more recent example of successful budget reductions. Estonia and the other Baltic nations ignored Keynesian snake-oil when the financial crisis hit and instead imposed genuine spending cuts.

The result? Growth has recovered and these nations are doing much better than the European countries that decided that big tax hikes and/or Keynesian spending binges were the right approach.

Paul Krugman, not surprisingly, got this wrong.

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The statist agenda of ever-growing government requires more money going to Washington, which is why I think that proponents of limited government should do everything they can to block tax increases.

This is the “starve the beast” theory, and I’ve previously explained why I think it is a necessary part of any long-run strategy to restrain the burden of government spending.

He would never admit it, but Obama seems to agree, which is why he is dogmatically fixated on doing everything he can to seduce Republicans into supporting higher taxes.

Obama Sequester Boomerang CartoonBut he miscalculated in thinking that the fiscal cliff tax hike somehow meant that he had permanently neutered the GOP, and he definitely goofed when he tried to use the sequester as a weapon to bully Republicans into another tax hike.

Ignoring the President’s hyperbole about the supposed catastrophic effects of a very modest reduction in the growth of the federal budget, Republicans have held firm.

And the President has suffered a painful political and policy defeat.

Here’s some of what was reported in The Hill about the President’s attitude.

The first months of President Obama’s second term are being built around a simple premise: No caving. …Obama is in an ultra-assertive mood, practically daring Republicans to defy his wishes. …Obama’s attitude is more akin to that of a general leading his forces into battle, confident that he can decimate the enemy. …On the sequester, for instance, Obama did little more than pay lip-service to the idea of a last-minute compromise to avert the package of cuts.

Well, Republicans did “defy his wishes” and it’s the worst possible outcome for the President. The growth of spending is being slowed and taxes are not going up.

Democrats on Capitol Hill also thought that the fiscal cliff tax hike would be a precedent for lots of future tax hikes. As reported by Politico, their analysis was misguided.

Democrats toasted the New Year’s fiscal cliff deal with the belief that they had set a crucial new precedent: Tax hikes would be part of any future deficit reduction package. Two months later, the champagne buzz is wearing off. …the exuberance expressed by many Democrats at the beginning of the year was misplaced. Efforts to avert the sequester never achieved liftoff, and Democrats are realizing that new tax revenues are off the table for the immediate future. …“We’ve tried everything we can,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Thursday. “They will not budge on anything dealing with revenue.”

Byron York has the best analysis, explaining in his Washington Examiner column that Obama gambled and (at least so far) lost.

Nine months ago, Barack Obama likened his Republican opposition to an illness. If he could just defeat Mitt Romney, Obama said, then the illness might subside. “I believe that if we’re successful in this election — when we’re successful in this election — that the fever may break,” Obama told a fundraiser in Minneapolis last June. After Obama won re-election, there was extensive discussion among his supporters about whether the Republican “fever” would, in fact, break.

But this strategy appears to have boomeranged. Byron thinks that the White House is now in a weak position.

There was little speculation about whether something quite different might happen: Would determined GOP opposition break Obama’s fever?  That is, could Republicans weaken the president’s resolve to defeat the GOP and further raise taxes? That appears to be what has occurred, at least for the moment. …Friday morning, Obama seemed resigned to the possibility that he cannot win the further tax increases he seeks, and that after enlisting his entire administration in a campaign to frighten Americans about sequestration, the cuts have become a reality that he has to acknowledge.

While I’m glad the President goofed, I’m not under any illusion that winning a battle is the same thing as winning a war.

It’s quite possible that the modest sequester savings will be undone as part of the “continuing resolution” legislation to fund the federal government between March 27 and the rest of the fiscal year.

There will also be a debt limit fight later in the Spring, which will give proponents of bigger government another bite at the apple (though it’s a double-edged sword since advocates of limited government also can use the debt limit as a vehicle for reform).

And the President obviously won’t give up on his campaign for higher taxes. I worry that he’ll trick gullible GOPers into a tax hike at some point, either as part of a Trojan Horse tax reform or as part of a budget summit that produces something like Bowles-Simposon, a package of real tax hikes and illusory entitlement reforms.

But we can fight those battles down the road. Today, let’s enjoy the sweet smell of victory.

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I shared some sequester cartoons last month, but I didn’t think they hit the nail on the head.

As regular readers know, I want the message to be focused.

  1. The problem is spending, not deficits.
  2. Government is too big.
  3. The sequester is a good thing, albeit too small.
  4. Obama and the other politicians are engaging in hysterical hyperbole to protect special-interest spending.

I think that message is slowly sinking in, which is why I was much happier about the next batch of sequester cartoons.

Now we have an embarrassment of riches. Enjoy (and widely share) this set of cartoons.

We’ll start with Michael Ramirez, who uses pie charts to show how much bigger government is today and how the sequester is just crumbs.

Sequester Cartoon Ramirez 3

And here’s one from Ed Gamble showing the President engaging in fear tactics, though both Ramirez and Gamble are wrong about the “cuts.” The sequester cuts $85 billion of “budget authority,” but that translates into only $44 billion of “budget outlays.”

That’s just 1.2 percent of FY2013 spending. And remember that this means spending will still go up compared to FY2012 – as I explained in my most recent interview.

Sequester Cartoon Gamble 3

Here’s a cartoon from Gary Varvel, which is quite similar to an excellent cartoon he produced last year.

Sequester Cartoon Varvel 3

Here’s one from Glenn McCoy, poking fun at Obama for taking everything in stride…except when something happens to threaten the amount of waste in Washington.

Sequester Cartoon McCoy 3

I’m especially fond of this Glenn Foden cartoon since I’m sick and tired of the absurd hyperbole from the interest groups in DC.

Makes me wish I could bop a few Chicken Little characters on the head.

Sequester Cartoon Foden 3

Here’s one from A.F. Branco, which I also like because it simultaneously mocks Obama’s Keynesian mindset while showing that the real danger is an ever-rising burden of government spending.

Sequester Cartoon Branco 3

Last but not least, Lisa Benson makes fun of Obama for his never-ending efforts to instill panic.

Sequester Cartoon Benson 3

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the sequester happens on March 1. Then, even if the Obama Administration deliberately tries to cause inconvenience for the American people, we’ll see that the world doesn’t come to an end.

Who knows, maybe that will even lead lawmakers to think they can impose some real fiscal restraint, as we’ve recently seen in countries like Estonia and in the 1990s by nations such as Canada and New Zealand.

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I’m normally not a fan of the media, but every so often you find examples of real journalism. Here are some powerful, well-done stories from local TV stations.

  1. Exposing the plethora of benefits available to those who want government-subsidized idleness.
  2. Exposing how eminent domain laws are used to screw poor people out of their property.
  3. Exposing local government officials engaged in a witch hunt against an innocent man.

Newspapers also sometimes speak truth to power.

  1. A Michigan newspaper exposing how motorists were getting ripped off by illegal speed limits.
  2. A Pennsylvania newspaper exposing how a local bureaucrat  union tried to stop a boy scout from improving a local park.
  3. A New York newspaper exposing the education establishment for giving teachers $100,000-plus salaries for doing nothing.

Now I can add another story to the list. A local TV station in Washington, DC (with a viewing audience of countless overpaid bureaucrats) had the courage to run a story debunking sequester hysteria.

I’m partial to this report for the obvious reason that it featured me.

But even if this story didn’t use any of my soundbites, it would still be worth sharing because it’s not often that you see a reporter explain Washington’s dishonest way of measuring “spending cuts.”

I’ve complained about that sleazy tactic while appearing with John Stossel and Judge Napolitano, but I didn’t think a regular journalist would ever expose the scam.

The latter part of the report focuses on the potential impact of sequestration on the defense budget.

I’ve previously explained that the defense budget is disproportionately impacted, but I’ve also cited Cato’s military experts when arguing that our national security will not be endangered.

Indeed, military spending will be higher at the end of the 10-year period than it is today.

Now I want to share this amazing info-graphic prepared by Zach Graves, another Cato colleague.

Zach Defense

A thorough and compelling collection of data. It belongs in the visual-impact Hall of Fame with these gems.

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Sigh. I feel like a modern-day Sisyphus. Except I’m not pushing a rock up a hill, only to then watch it roll back down.

Compared to educating journalists about fiscal policy, this is an easy task

I have a far more frustrating job. I have to read the same nonsense day after day about “deep spending cuts” even though I keep explaining to journalists that a sequester merely means that spending climbs by $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years rather than $2.5 trillion.

The latest example comes from the New York Times, which just reported about “deep automatic spending cuts that will strike hard” without bothering to provide a single concrete number about spending levels in any fiscal year.

Yes, you read correctly. A story about budget cuts did not have any numbers for spending in FY2013, FY2014, or any other fiscal year.

So, for the umpteenth time, here are the actual numbers from the Congressional Budget Office showing what will happen to spending over the next 10 years if we have a sequester.

Sequester 2013

I don’t mean to pick on the New York Times. Yes, the self-styled paper of record has been guilty in the past of turning budget increases into spending cuts, but the Washington Post is guilty of the same sin, having actually written in 2011 that reducing a $3.8 trillion budget by $6 billion would “slash spending.”

And the NYT story actually has some decent reporting on how Republicans so far have (fingers crossed) avoided the tax-increase trap that Obama thought the sequester would create.

But one would still like to think that Journalism 101 teaches reporters to include a few hard facts when writing stories. Particularly if they’re going to use dramatic adjectives to describe what supposedly will happen.

Anyhow, this is just part of a larger problem. As I explained in these John Stossel and Judge Napolitano interviews, the politicians and interest groups have given us a budget process that assumes ever-increasing spending levels, which then allows them to make hysterical claims about “savage” and “draconian” cuts whenever spending doesn’t rise as fast as some hypothetical baseline.

This is why almost nobody understands that it’s actually relatively simple to balance the budget with a modest bit of spending restraint. My goal is reducing the burden of government spending, not fiscal balance, but it’s worth noting that we’d have a balanced budget in just 10 years if spending grew by “only” 3.4 percent annually.

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I shared a couple of amusing sequester cartoons the other day, and I’ve previously written about the absurdity of anti-sequester hysteria in Washington when all it means is that the federal budget will grow by $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years rather than $2.5 trillion.

This Nate Beeler cartoon effectively captures the mindset of Washington’s big spenders.

sequester Cartoon Beeler

Let’s take a serious look at this topic.

George Will is appropriately disgusted by the antics of the political class. Here’s some of his column on the topic.

The sequester has forced liberals to clarify their conviction that whatever the government’s size is at any moment, it is the bare minimum necessary to forestall intolerable suffering. At his unintentionally hilarious hysteria session Tuesday, Obama said: The sequester’s “meat-cleaver approach” of “severe,” “arbitrary” and “brutal” cuts will “eviscerate” education, energy and medical research spending. “And already, the threat of these cuts has forced the Navy to delay an aircraft carrier that was supposed to deploy to the Persian Gulf.”

Will elaborates on the Navy’s shameful  stunt.

“Forced”? The Navy did indeed cite the sequester when delaying deployment of the USS Truman. …the Navy is saying it cannot find cuts to programs or deployments less essential than the Truman deployment. The Navy’s participation in the political campaign to pressure Congress into unraveling the sequester is crude, obvious and shameful, and it should earn the Navy’s budget especially skeptical scrutiny by Congress. The Defense Department’s civilian employment has grown 17 percent since 2002. In 2012, defense spending on civilian personnel was 21 percent higher than in 2002. And the Truman must stay in Norfolk? This is, strictly speaking, unbelievable.

Will also comments on the Keynesian economic theory being used to fight against sequestration.

Obama, who believes government spends money more constructively than do those who earn it, warns that the sequester’s budgetary nicks, amounting to one-half of 1 percent of gross domestic product, will derail the economy. A similar jeremiad was heard in 1943 when economist Paul Samuelson, whose Keynesian assumptions have trickled down to Obama, said postwar cuts in government would mean “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced.” Federal spending did indeed shrink an enormous 40 percent in one year. And the economy boomed.

Amen. I’ve already cited a Cato study on this topic, which shows that the Keynesians were wildly wrong in their predictions of post-war economic collapse.

And the Wall Street Journal also has opined on this topic, showing not only that lawmakers wisely rejected another round of Keynesian foolishness, but also that post-war tax cuts were one of the reasons why the economy quickly rebounded.

Let’s close with some more mockery of the clowns in Washington.

This Gary Varvel cartoon shows what’s happening, though I’ve would have drawn Chicken Little to resemble Obama.

Sequester Cartoon Varvel

But what about the second frame of the cartoon? If the sequester happens, will the statists be forced to admit that they were creating false fears in hopes of protecting their spots at the federal trough?

As reported in the Washington Post, one of them is very worried about this possible outcome.

“…The bad news is, the world doesn’t end March 2,” said Emily Holubowich, a Washington health-care lobbyist who leads a coalition of 3,000 nonprofit groups fighting the cuts. “The worst-case scenario for us is the sequester hits and nothing bad really happens. And Republicans say: See, that wasn’t so bad.”

Since the sequester takes effect on March 1, we’ll soon find out.

Some bureaucracies will deliberately try to make the sequester as inconvenient and painful as possible for the American people. As I said in this Larry Kudlow interview, the heads of those agencies should be fired.

Of course, Obama will probably try to reward them, but those who favor responsible fiscal policy should do everything possible to expose the shameful game being played by these political hacks.

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I’ve previously shared some very good “government-shutdown” jokes, and also two superb cartoons on that topic from the 1990s.

So I guess it was only a matter of time before we got some cartoons about sequestration.

But I don’t like most of them because they imply sequestration is a bad thing.

But this Lisa Benson cartoon is worth sharing if for no other reason that it calls attention to the fact that people are myopically fixating on a very small sequester while ignoring a giant long-run entitlement problem.

Sequester Cartoon Benson

The good news, for what it’s worth, is that the House of Representatives voted for good entitlement reform in 2011 and 2012. So it’s theoretically possible that we may deal with that meteor before it causes a Greek-style meltdown at some point in the future.

I also like this next cartoon, produced by Jerry Holbert, because it shows Uncle Sam as a big fat slob.

The obvious implication is that government is too big and needs to be put on a diet, with is the same theme we get with this cartoon about redistribution, this cartoon about the VAT., and these cartoons about Obama’s agenda.

Sequester Cartoon Holbert

The problem, of course, is that the sequester is too small. But at least this cartoon suggests that the problem is too much government spending and that Uncle Sam needs to lose some weight.

Enjoy, and please share widely.

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Notwithstanding hysterical rhetoric from the White House, the bureaucracies, and the various pro-spending lobbies in Washington, the sequester does not mean “vicious” or “draconian” spending cuts.

I wish that was the case.

All it does is restrain spending so that it grows by $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years rather than $2.5 trillion. We need a much greater degree of fiscal discipline to address the long-term spending crisis – including some real entitlement reform.

But the sequester is certainly better than doing nothing.

My concern, though, is that feckless and incompetent Republicans will fumble away victory. I explain in this Larry Kudlow interview that “doing nothing” is the right approach since the sequester happens automatically, but I’m worried that this very modest step in the right direction will be eroded as part of subsequent spending bills.

On a related note, Byron York of the Washington Examiner is rather perplexed by the GOP’s sequester strategy, which is based on the inconsistent message that it should happen, but that it’s bad.

Boehner calls the cuts “deep,” when most conservatives emphasize that for the next year they amount to about $85 billion out of a $3,600 billion budget.  Which leads to another question: Why would Boehner adopt the Democratic description of the cuts as “deep” when they would touch such a relatively small part of federal spending? The effect of Boehner’s argument is to make Obama seem reasonable in comparison. After all, the president certainly agrees with Boehner that the sequester cuts threaten national security and jobs.  The difference is that Obama wants to avoid them.  At the same time, Boehner is contributing to Republican confusion on the question of whether the cuts are in fact “deep” or whether they are relatively minor. Could the GOP message on the sequester be any more self-defeating?

My two cents is that fiscal conservatives should argue that sequestration isn’t the ideal way to trim the burden of government spending, but that it’s the only option since President Obama is refusing to look at any alternatives unless they are based on class-warfare tax hikes and phony entitlement gimmicks.

What really matters, though, is in the driver’s seat in this battle. They can win…but only if they want to.

Every so often, I issue imperious edicts about things that Republicans should do to demonstrate that they genuinely support limited government.

  1. No tax increases, since more money for Washington will encourage a bigger burden of government and undermine prosperity.
  2. To stop bailouts for Europe’s decrepit welfare states, no more money for the International Monetary Fund.
  3. Reform the biased number-crunching methodology at the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation.
  4. No more money from American taxpayers to subsidize the left-wing bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  5. Defund the crony capitalists at the Export-Import Bank.

I’m not naive enough to think that GOPers actually care about my demands, but I certainly think the sequester is a “gut-check” moment for Republicans.

If they capitulate to Obama in the short run, or if they wipe out the sequester savings as part of subsequent spending bills, that will be a very dismal sign that the folks who came to DC thinking it was a cesspool have instead decided that it’s really a hot tub.

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The looters and moochers in Washington are increasingly agitated by the prospect of sequestration.

Automatic budget cuts, we are told, will indiscriminately slash vital programs and undermine economic growth by reducing government spending.

This is utter bunk. I would like to “slash vital programs,” but the chart I prepared earlier this week shows that the federal budget will expand by $2.4 trillion if a sequester occurs.

So the net effect of sequestration, as I explain in this Larry Kudlow segment on CNBC, is that the federal budget won’t expand by $2.5 trillion.

I did this interview from London, by the way, where is was past midnight, so I hope you’ll forgive me for looking a bit groggy at the very beginning.

But I think I did a decent job once the juices started flowing, though it’s hard to have an argument with someone who still believes in the snake-oil of Keynesian economics.

It’s sort of like having a debate about sailing with someone who thinks the earth if flat. Just like Krugman, Bernstein seems to reflexively think that it’s always a good idea to have a higher burden of government spending. So a sequester is a bad idea if you have this mindset, just like it would be a bad idea to sail off the edge of the earth.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on this issue and was appropriately dismissive of the hysterical anti-sequester rhetoric coming from Washington.

Washington is in a fit of collective terror over the “sequester,” aka the impending across-the-board spending cuts. …Mr. Obama warned about “the threat of massive automatic cuts that have already started to affect business decisions.” He proposed tax increases and “smaller” spending cuts to replace the sequester… listening to his cries of “massive” cuts is like watching “Scary Movie” for the 10th time. You know it’s a joke.

Indeed, I suspect that many Democrats realize it is a joke. But they see the federal budget as a mechanism for buying votes with other people’s money.

Many GOPers see the budget from the same perspective, but fortunately they are constrained by their no-tax-hike pledges, so they Republicans at least are pretending to be on the right side of this fight.

WSJ Spending TableRepublicans have rightly concluded after two years of being sucker-punched that the sequester is the main negotiating leverage they have and may be the only way to restrain spending. So now Democrats and a gaggle of interest groups are denouncing Mr. Obama’s fiscal brainchild because the programs they cherish—from job training to education, to the EPA and energy subsidies, to money for Planned Parenthood—are about to get chopped too. Fear not. As always in Washington when there is talk of cutting spending, most of the hysteria is baseless. The nearby table from the House Budget Committee shows that programs are hardly starved for money. In Mr. Obama’s first two years, while private businesses and households were spending less and deleveraging, federal domestic discretionary spending soared by 84% with some agencies doubling and tripling their budgets.

The WSJ shares my disdain for the Keynesian argument, and they explain that the last period of strong growth took place during the late 1990s, when Bill Clinton and the GOP Congress substantially reduced the burden of federal spending.

The most disingenuous White House claim is that the sequester will hurt the economy. Reality check: The cuts amount to about 0.5% of GDP. The theory that any and all government spending is “stimulus” has been put to the test over the last five years, and the result has been the weakest recovery in 75 years and trillion-dollar annual deficits. The sequester will help the economy by leaving more capital for private investment. From 1992-2000 Democrat Bill Clinton and (after 1994) a Republican Congress oversaw budgets that cut federal outlays to 18.2% from 22.1% of GDP. These were years of rapid growth in production and incomes. The sequester will surely require worker furloughs and cutbacks in certain nonpriority services. But most of those layoffs will happen in the Washington, D.C. area, the recession-free region that has boomed during the Obama era.

I can’t resist augmenting the final point is this excerpt. It’s not just that Washington, DC, has become a “recession-free region.”

The federal metropolis now has the biggest concentration of America’s richest counties. The lobbyists, politicians, interest groups, and overpaid bureaucrats are living very nice lives at our expense.

So let’s not just have a sequester. Let’s joyfully embrace it.

P.S. In the Kudlow debate, Jared was right about CBO’s position. This, of course, is one of the reasons why the GOP should de-fund this ideologically biased bureaucracy.

P.P.S. Just as the U.S. enjoyed strong growth when spending was restrained in the 1990s, other nations had very positive results when they capped or froze government spending.

P.P.P.S. By contrast, here are the nations that enjoyed good results with Keynesian policy.

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To save America from the supposedly “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts caused by sequestration, President Obama has instead asked Congress to approve an alternative fiscal package containing additional tax increases.

So why is the sequester so bad? Does it slash the budget by 50 percent? Does it shut down departments, programs, and agencies?

Sounds good to me. We need to reduce the burden of government spending, so some genuine budget cuts would be very desirable.

The pro-spending lobbies in Washington certainly are acting as if spending would be “cut to the bone.” As documented by my colleague Tad DeHaven, they’re claiming horrible things will happen.

So what’s the real story? Well, the Congressional Budget Office today released its annual Budget and Economic Outlook, and Tables 1-1 and 1-5 allow us to see the “brutal” impact of the sequester.

As you can see from this chart, the sequester will “cut” spending so much that the budget will grow by “only” $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years.

Sequester 2013

Rather anticlimactic, I admit. No widows dying in snowbanks. No blood flowing in the streets.

So you can let the women and children back in the room. It turns out that all the hyperbole and hysteria about the sequester is based on the dishonest Washington definition of a budget cut – i.e., when spending doesn’t rise as fast as projected in some artificial baseline.

Yes, some parts of the budget are disproportionately impacted, such as defense. But even the defense budget climbs over the 10-year period and the United States will still account for close to 50 percent of global military outlays when the dust settles.

The bottom line is that there’s no reason to worry about the sequester and there’s certainly no reason to go along with Obama’s plan to replace the sequester with a tax-heavy budget deal.

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Much to the horror of various interest groups, it appears that there will be a “sequester” on March 1.

This means an automatic reduction in spending authority for selected programs (interest payments are exempt, as are most entitlement outlays).

Just about everybody in Washington is frantic about the sequester, which supposedly will mean “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts.

If only. That would be like porn for libertarians.

In reality, the sequester merely means a reduction in the growth of federal spending. Even if we have the sequester, the burden of government spending will still be about $2 trillion higher in 10 years.

The other common argument against the sequester is that it represents an unthinking “meat-ax” approach to the federal budget.

But a former congressional staffer and White House appointee says this is much better than doing nothing.

Here’s some of what Professor Jeff Bergner wrote for today’s Wall Street Journal.

You know the cliché: America’s fiscal condition might be grim, but lawmakers should avoid the “meat ax” of across-the-board spending cuts and instead use the “scalpel” of targeted reductions. …Targeted reductions would be welcome, but the current federal budget didn’t drop from the sky. Every program in the budget—from defense to food stamps, agriculture, Medicare and beyond—is in place for a reason: It has advocates in Congress and a constituency in the country. These advocates won’t sit idly by while their programs are targeted, whether by a scalpel or any other instrument. That is why targeted spending cuts have historically been both rare and small.

Bergner explains that small across-the-board cuts are very reasonable.

The most likely way to achieve significant reductions in spending is by across-the-board cuts. Each reduction of 1% in the $3.6 trillion federal budget would yield roughly $36 billion the first year and would reduce the budget baseline in future years. Even with modest reductions, this is real money. …let’s give up the politically pointless effort to pick and choose among programs, accept the political reality of current allocations, and reduce everything proportionately. No one program would be very much disadvantaged. In many cases, a 1% or 3% reduction would scarcely be noticed. Are we really to believe that a government that spent $2.7 trillion five years ago couldn’t survive a 3% cut that would bring spending to “only” $3.5 trillion today? Every household, company and nonprofit organization across America can do this, as can state and local governments. So could Washington.

And he turns the fairness argument back on critics, explaining that it is a virtue to treat all programs similarly.

Across-the-board federal cuts would have to include all programs—no last-minute reprieves for alternative-energy programs, filmmakers or any other cause. All parties would know that they are being treated equally. Defense programs, food-stamp recipients, retired federal employees, the judiciary, Social-Security recipients, veterans and members of Congress—each would join to make a minor sacrifice. It would be a narrative of civic virtue.

It’s worth noting, however, that the sequester would not treat all programs equally. Defense spending is only about 20 percent of the budget, for instance, yet the Pentagon will absorb 50 percent of the savings (though defense spending still increases over the next 10 years).

At the risk of oversimplifying, the sequester basically applies to so-called discretionary spending. So-called mandatory spending accounts for a majority of federal spending, but it is largely exempt, so entitlement reform will still be necessary if we want to address the nation’s long-run fiscal challenges.

To close, Bergner notes that “meat-ax” isn’t the right term to describe very small across-the-board cuts.

Talk of axes versus scalpels is designed to deflect reform. Whatever carefully targeted budget cuts might animate our dreams, the actual world of divided government suggests only one realistic way to achieve real spending reductions. It is not a meat ax. A scalpel that shaves a bit off all programs equally would work just fine.

In other words, the sequester is simply a very modest step in the right direction.

And while we should be radically downsizing the federal government, it’s worth reiterating that modest steps are capable of yielding big results.

Simply restraining the budget so that it grows 2.5 percent annually, for instance, is all that would be needed to balance the budget in 10 years. Not big budget cuts. Not small budget cuts. Just a bit of measly fiscal restraint.

Yet President Obama thinks that’s asking too much and instead wants ever-higher taxes to support an ever-growing government.

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Beginning with the very first policy-oriented post on this blog, I’ve been criticizing Keynesian economics, usually with lots of cheering and support from the GOP. Indeed, more than 98 percent of Republicans in the House and Senate voted against Obama’s so-called stimulus.

They understood – or at least seemed to understand – that you don’t create jobs by diverting money from the private sector so it can be spent by politicians in Washington.

And they have the satisfaction of seeing history justify their votes. Unemployment rose after the faux stimulus was enacted and the joblessness rate has stayed above 8 percent.

But some Republicans are now sounding like born-again Keynesians. They object to the automatic budget savings – known as sequestration – that are scheduled to take effect next year, and they are warning that less government spending means fewer jobs. Here’s a small sampling of their statements.

I would have no objection to these lawmakers arguing against a sequester if they based their concerns on national security, even if I think those concerns are exaggerated.

And I would understand if they objected to a sequester because defense is disproportionately impacted (the Pentagon accounts for only about one-fourth of the budget, yet it absorbs one-half of the sequester).

And I wouldn’t even complain if they claimed that a sequester is painful because of short-term economic dislocation and transition costs. Heck, I even said that might be a legitimate excuse when Mitt Romney said something that sounded suspiciously Keynesian.

But it doesn’t seem like those caveats apply.

Let’s close with some good news and bad news. The good news is that I don’t actually think any of the anti-sequestration lawmakers are genuine Keynesians.

The bad news is that they are genuine politicians, so they think there is nothing wrong with using the coercive power of government to take as much from the rest of the country as possible and redistribute those resources to their states or districts.

They may vaguely understand that big government undermines economic performance, but that’s a secondary concern. They’re main goal is buying votes with other people’s money.

P.S. You can peruse some good cartoons about Keynesian economics by clicking here, here, here, and here.

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I like sequestration. Automatic budget cuts might not be the best way of reducing the burden of government spending, but a sequester is better than leaving the federal budget on autopilot.

Particularly since the “cuts” are mostly just reductions in already-scheduled increases.

The only exception, at least in the short run, is the defense budget. I point out in this Cato Institute video that the defense budget absorbs 50 percent of the sequester even though the Pentagon accounts for only about 25 percent of federal outlays.

But even with a sequester, the defense budget ten years from now will be $100 billion higher than it is today.

And since the United States accounts from more than 45 percent of global military spending (and our allies represent another 24 percent of total defense outlays), two of my Cato colleagues explain in the video that it is silly to think that a sequester will leave America helpless.

Many Republicans want to cancel the sequester in order to protect the defense budget, and some of them are even willing to surrender to Obama’s demands and implement a tax increase to make that happen.

Before doing something that is both economically and politically misguided, they should take a few minutes and read George Will’s sober analysis.

While they’re at it, that may want to also peruse some writings by Mark Steyn and Steve Chapman. A defense sequester might be an especially good result if it leads to some long-overdue thinking about misguided overseas commitments.

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Last year, as part of the fight over the debt limit, Congress created a “super-committee” that was designed to produce at least $1.2 trillion of “deficit reduction.”

The statists saw this super-committee as a vehicle to seduce Republicans into a tax hike. They knew that some GOPers are perpetually gullible and would be susceptible to the siren song of a “balanced approach” – even though that inevitably means higher taxes and never-fulfilled promises of future spending restraint.

But they also had a back-up plan. They got Republicans to agree that there would be automatic spending cuts – known as sequestration – if the super-committee failed to produce an agreement. And they convinced GOPers that half of these automatic cuts would come from the defense budget, even though military spending is only about one-fourth of total federal spending.

The left figured that the threat of a military sequester would scare some pro-defense GOPers into supporting a tax hike. Maybe not as part of the super-committee deliberations, but perhaps as we got closer to January 1, 2013, which is when the sequester was scheduled to take effect.

Well, the super-committee thankfully didn’t reach an agreement because not enough Republicans were foolish enough to support a tax hike. But now the left’s back-up plan is being implemented. Senator Harry Reid, supported by the White House, is saying that the sequester will go into effect unless GOPers surrender to a tax hike. Here’s some of what the Associated Press reported.

President Barack Obama’s top Democratic ally in the Senate said Wednesday that he won’t block much-feared automatic spending cuts to the Pentagon and Medicare providers from taking effect unless Republicans show more flexibility on cutting the budget deficit. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that $110 billion in automatic cuts coming due in January were designed to force both Republicans and Democrats to bargain over a “balanced approach” — including tax increases… The automatic cuts, known as a sequester, are the result of the failure of a deficit “supercommittee” to reach agreement last year. “Republicans refused to be reasonable. They refused to raise even a penny of new revenue, or ask millionaires to contribute their fair share to help reduce our deficit and our debt,” Reid said. “It is their intransigence — their refusal to compromise — that leaves us facing the threat of the sequester, and its difficult but balanced cuts.” Republicans controlling the House are seeking to undo the automatic cuts by substituting cuts to domestic programs like food aid, Obama’s health care law and social services like Meals on Wheels. …The White House proposed lifting the automatic cuts in its February budget, which called for tax increases on wealthier people and closing numerous tax breaks enjoyed by corporations. Even as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned the sequester would lead to a “hollowed out” military, White House officials have taken a hard line against incremental efforts to switch off the cuts.

So we are facing a big game of chicken. Democrats are holding the defense budget hostage and telling Republicans they have to raise taxes.

GOPers should tell them to go jump in a lake. A defense sequester would not be the end of the world. Far from it.

All that being said, I’m very sympathetic to Republicans who are seeking to replace some of the defense savings by trimming the growth of domestic programs.

After all, national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government. So even if the defense budget is bloated and the U.S. is wasting money on nation building, why not focus first on reducing and eliminating domestic programs that shouldn’t exist?

But even if you don’t care about the Constitution and enumerated powers, it certainly doesn’t seem right to make one-fourth of the budget swallow one-half of the savings. Why not make the sequester apply equally to all parts of the budget?

Those are good questions, but they’re not relevant in the hard-ball world of Washington politics. The real issue is what Republicans will do if (and when) Democrats don’t go along with the GOP plan. Will they then surrender to a tax hike?

That would be an unmitigated disaster. If the left knows that Republicans can be bullied into tax hikes by holding the defense budget hostage, then a tax hike today would simply be a down payment. Every time the statists want more money to feed a bloated welfare state, they’ll simply tell GOPers that the only alternative is “deep defense cuts.”

Republicans have a reputation for being the “stupid party.” I guess we’ll find out for sure if they allow themselves to get maneuvered into a tax hike. The first of many, by the way.

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There’s a big behind-the-scenes fight inside Republican circles about the military budget. GOP hawks are so concerned about the possibility of a sequester (automatic reductions in projected spending) that some of them are willing to capitulate to a tax hike.

Others are pursuing a more productive approach, as explained in this story. They want to cancel the defense sequester and replace the savings by restraining pay levels for federal bureaucrats.

This is an excellent idea since domestic programs are overwhelmingly to blame for America’s fiscal problems, and those programs employ hundreds of thousands of unnecessary and over-compensated bureaucrats.

Regardless of how that effort plays out, though, George Will explains in a new column that Republicans hawks can ease up on the overheated rhetoric. Simply stated, there is no risk to America’s military supremacy.

The U.S. defense budget is about 43 percent of the world’s total military spending — more than the combined defense spending of the next 17 nations, many of which are U.S. allies. Are Republicans really going to warn voters that America will be imperiled if the defense budget is cut 8 percent from projections over the next decade? In 2017, defense spending would still be more than that of the next 10 countries combined. Do Republicans think it is premature to withdraw as many as 7,000 troops from Europe two decades after the Soviet Union’s death? About 73,000 will remain, most of them in prosperous, pacific, largely unarmed and utterly unthreatened Germany. Why do so many remain? …GOP critics say that Obama’s proposed defense cuts will limit America’s ability to engage in troop-intensive nation-building. Most Americans probably say: Good. …Osama bin Laden and many other “high-value targets” are dead, the drone war is being waged more vigorously than ever, and Guantanamo is still open, so Republicans can hardly say that Obama has implemented dramatic and dangerous discontinuities regarding counterterrorism. …even with his proposed cuts, the defense budget would increase at about the rate of inflation through the next decade.

The last point is similar to something I wrote last year. Even with a sequester, defense outlays will climb by about $100 billion over the next 10 years.

And I very much agree with Will’s point about defending Germany, which is part of the broader discussion of why NATO still exists about 20 years after the Warsaw Pact dissolved.

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Some people have asked why I’m so agitated about the possibility that Republicans may acquiesce to tax increases as part of the Supercommittee negotiations.

Rather than get into a lengthy discourse about the proper role of the federal government or an analysis of how the Bush-Obama spending binge worsened America’s fiscal situation, I think this chart from a previous post says it all.

Republicans are considering a surrender on taxes because they are afraid that a deadlock will lead to a sequester, which would mean automatic budget savings. And the sequester, according to these politicians, would “cut” the budget too severely.

But as the chart illustrates, that is utter nonsense.

There are only budget cuts if you use dishonest Washington budget math, which magically turns spending increases into spending cuts simply because the burden of government isn’t expanding even faster.

If we use honest math, we can see what this debate is really about. Should we raise taxes so that government spending can grow by more than $2 trillion over the next 10 years?

Or should we have a sequester so that the burden of federal spending climbs by “only” $2 trillion?

The fact that this is even an issue tells us a lot about whether the GOP has purged itself of the big-government virus of the Bush years.

A few Republicans say that a sellout on tax hikes is necessary to protect the defense budget from being gutted, but this post shows that defense spending will climb by about $100 billion over the next 10 years under a sequester. And that doesn’t even count all the supplemental funding bills that doubtlessly will be enacted.

In other words, anyone who says we need to raise taxes instead of taking a sequester is really saying that we need to expand the burden of government spending.

So even though Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge are two of my heroes, now you know why I don’t consider myself a Republican.

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Yesterday, I unloaded on supposed conservatives who are toying with a tax increase to enable more government spending.

Why would they take that route in the “Supercommittee” deliberations, I wondered, when they can deliver a guaranteed victory for taxpayers by holding firm and allowing a sequester to occur, which would automatically slow the growth of federal spending?

Many of the beltway elites seem to think a sequester would be catastrophic, leading to “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts.

This is nonsense. As I’ve already explained, a sequester simply means that spending climbs by $2 trillion between now and 2021 rather than climbing by $2.1 trillion (see this chart).

If that’s “savage” and “draconian,” then I suppose we should hospitalize 300-pounders for anorexia when they trim their toenails.

The Wall Street Journal’s editors are equally dismissive of the anti-sequester hysteria among the politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and special interest groups. Here’s some of what they had to say.

…the sequester does have the virtue of imposing reductions in spending that Congress rarely agrees to on its own. …This would yield $68 billion in savings in 2013, and more savings in future years by ratcheting down the baseline level of spending. …Total domestic discretionary spending doubled to $614 billion in 2010 from $298 billion in 2000. Even if there were a 10-year $1.2 trillion “cut,” total discretionary spending would still rise by $83 billion by 2021 because those cuts are calculated from inflated “current services” projections. …If the super committee choice is between a tax increase that would hurt the economy or letting the sequester strike in 2013, go with the sequester.

And in a column on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, former Senator Phil Gramm, along with a Capitol Hill budget expert, Mike Solon, echoed these sentiments. Here are some key passages.

As markets and the media conclude that the congressional super committee on deficit reduction is likely to fail, public attention is increasingly focused on the “draconian” across-the-board cuts that will ensue. …Across-the-board cuts are clearly inferior to rationally setting priorities, but they’d be far from debilitating. Spending has grown so fast in the last five years that even if the cuts are triggered, total spending in 2013 would still be a whopping $3,582 billion—32% more than projected by the Congressional Budget Office in January 2007. Even after adjusting for inflation, real nondefense discretionary spending would be up $41 billion, or 7.6%, and real defense discretionary spending would be up $77 billion, or 13%. …The super committee should write a good plan now if it can do so, but it should not take a bad deal that could hurt the economy and further Hellenize America’s debt crisis. The committee members should bear in mind that help is just an election away.

Gramm and Solon also explain that it will be very easy to modify a sequester after the 2012 election, so pro-defense hawks should not be fearful of a sequester – which was the point I made in an earlier post.

For all intents and purposes, the Supercommittee fight is a battle to see whether the GOP has shed the corrupt big-spending mentality of the Bush years. This should be an easy choice for a party that believes in limited government. The fact that we’re even having this discussion is not an encouraging sigh.

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What would you do if you saw somebody standing at the top of a skyscraper, about to jump? Would you avert your eyes in horror? Would you watch in dismay as they plummeted to the ground?

These are similar to the thoughts that are going through my mind as I watch Republicans begin the process of capitulating to a tax increase as part of the Supercommittee process.

Indeed, this is one of those moments when I desperately wish I was wrong. I warned back in August that the Supercommittee was a tax increase trap. Republicans have this lemming-like instinct to jump off the cliff, even though they get taken to the cleaners every time they agree to real tax increases and get make-believe spending cuts in exchange.

Here’s a depressing paragraph from a recent Washington Post story.

Tensions have mounted in recent days as two of the GOP’s most fervent anti-tax stalwarts on Capitol Hill — Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) — have lobbied party colleagues behind the scenes to forgo their old allegiances and even break campaign promises by embracing hundreds of billions of dollars in tax hikes.

What makes this potential sellout so disturbing is that every dollar of tax increases will enable another dollar of wasteful spending.

Here’s what George Will wrote in his latest column about the GOP’s foolish naiveté.

Although only 21 of the 242 Republicans in the House and eight of 47 Republicans in the Senate were on Capitol Hill in 1990, everyone there should remember the results of that year’s budget agreement, wherein President George H.W. Bush jettisoned his “no new taxes” pledge: Taxes increased. So did spending. And the deficit. Economic growth decreased.

So why are Republicans thinking of repeating this mistake? Well, there’s no good answer, but the most commonly cited reason is that they have been misled into thinking that the alternative result – automatic “budget cuts” known as sequestration – is too harsh.

This is an absurd line of reasoning, in part because it is blatantly inaccurate. The supposed “budget cuts” are only reductions if one uses dishonest Washington budget math. For those who rely on real-world numbers, total spending will climb significantly even if the sequester occurs.

Here is a chart that was part of an excellent article by Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center. It shows that spending – including defense spending – will increase regardless of what happens.

The only issue is whether members of the Stupid Party agree to a tax hike so that the burden of federal spending can climb even faster.

The Washington elites want a deal so they can transfer more money to Washington. For American taxpayers, however, the only good conclusion is a Supercommittee deadlock, followed by a sequester.

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Commenting on Supercommittee deliberations last month, I asked whether Republicans will choose the real budgetary savings of a sequester or surrender to a tax hike.

Well, it appears that the GOP likes being known as the Stupid Party and is seriously considering a plan to increase the net tax burden on the American people – even though some of us have warned from the beginning that the left would use the Supercommittee process as an opportunity to trick gullible Republicans into a tax increase.

Here’s the relevant section of an editorial by Steve Moore in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

…raising rates and raising revenues are different. Eliminating loopholes in exchange for making the Bush tax cuts permanent after 2013 is on the table—and by broadening the tax base, this could bring in tens of billions of new revenues each year. Says Mr. Hensarling: “Republicans want more revenues. We want more revenues by growing the economy; we’re not happy with revenues at 14% of GDP, but we don’t want to do it by raising rates.” One positive development on taxes taking shape is a deal that could include limiting tax deductions, perhaps by capping write-offs on charities, state and local taxes, and mortgage interest payments as a percentage of each tax filer’s gross income.

I’m a bit disappointed that Steve thinks restricting deductions is a “positive development.” I’m a big fan of getting rid of all preferences and distortions in the tax code, but that should only happen if all the revenue is used to finance lower tax rates, not to finance big government.

But that’s a secondary issue.

Republicans have complete power to achieve a victory in this battle. All that’s needed is for them to say no to a tax hike. That will lead to a Supercommittee stalemate, which will then lead to automatic budget savings known as sequestration.

Failure to take that option – particularly when the alternative is a tax hike – is breathtakingly misguided.

Especially when the historical evidence is overwhelming that any new tax revenue will be used to make government even bigger. Heck, the cartoon in this post is a disturbingly accurate description of what’s happening.

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I have sometimes wondered whether it is accurate to say that Republicans are the “Stupid Party.”

We’ll soon know the answer to that question. As part of the debt limit agreement, the politicians agreed to set up a “Supercommittee” comprised of six Republicans and six Democrats that was responsible for producing at least $1.2 trillion of supposed deficit reduction.

But the Democrats appointed a group of hardcore leftists to the Supercommittee, which means that it is virtually impossible to get the necessary seven votes for a good agreement. Indeed, the more relevant question is whether one or more of the Republicans surrenders to a big tax hike.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. The law says that there will be automatic spending reductions if the Supercommittee does not reach an agreement. The political establishment in Washington thinks that this outcome – known as sequestration – would be horrible.

They tell as that a sequester would mean “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts. The only “responsible” approach, we are told, is to go along with a tax increase.

This is hogwash. The automatic spending cuts are only “cuts” using Washington’s dishonest budget math. Here’s a chart showing how much spending will grow over the next 10 years, and the relatively tiny reduction in budgetary growth that will be caused if there is a sequester.

We’ve actually been down this path before. There was a small sequester back in the mid-1980s, shortly after the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law was enacted. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but the sequestration helped restrain the growth of spending and helped bring about a record amount of deficit reduction in 1987.

There was a similar (unsuccessful) fight in 1989. Here’s what then-Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon wrote in 1989.

…the sequester has become the focus of partisan debate . Each side accuses the other of being responsible for “deep and arbitrary” budget cuts . Some legislators say we should do whatever it takes to cancel the sequester, even if it means higher taxes. While a sequester is certainly not the ideal way to resolve this year’s budget dispute, there are reasons to believe that the fiscal discipline of a sequester is the medicine we need to cure the budget process. For all its drawbacks, a sequester is real deficit reduction . Instead of budget gimmicks, accounting tricks, phony cuts, and “revenue enhancements,” a sequester would reduce spending levels by a fixed percentage in eligible spending programs . In other words, unlike most deficit reduction packages, sequestration would actually reduce the deficit.

The only argument against a sequester, at least among conservatives, is that a sequester would impose too much of a burden on the defense budget. But I’ve already explained in this post that the defense budget will climb by about $100 billion under sequestration.

I don’t know whether Republicans are the stupid party, but I know they will be very stupid if they don’t take the sequester and declare victory.

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America is in fiscal peril in the short run because of a 10-year spending binge by Bush and Obama and in the long run because of a toxic combination of entitlement programs and demographics.

Congressman Paul Ryan has introduced a budget plan to address America’s fiscal crisis, but Senator Reid and President Obama have summarily rejected his proposal, so it appears the United States will continue to drift in the wrong direction.

Something is needed to compel action. One might think that such an impetus would have been provided by the recent decision by Standard & Poor to downgrade the fiscal outlook for the United States. But this development hasn’t affected the spending culture in Washington.

But there is hope. Senator Corker has legislation that would force Congress to act – and automatically impose fiscal discipline if they don’t. His bill caps – and then slowly reduces – government spending as a share of national economic output (gross domestic product).

I’ve already written about the merits of this proposal, including an explanation of the all-important enforcement mechanism of sequestration (automatic spending cuts). Here’s Senator Corker’s description of his plan, as delivered at a Cato Institute conference on the Economic Impact of Government Spending.

To build on the Senator’s comments, there are two things that deserve special emphasis.

1. He correctly understands that the problem is the size of government. As explained in this video, spending is the problem and deficits are a symptom of that problem.

Unfortunately, many policy makers focus on the budget deficit, which often makes them susceptible to misguided policies such as higher taxes. At best, such an approach merely substitutes one bad way of financing federal spending with another bad way of financing federal spending. And it’s much more likely that higher taxes will simply lead to more spending, thus exacerbating the real problem.

2. Senator Corker’s legislation has a real enforcement mechanism. If Congress fails to produce a budget that meets the annual spending cap, there is a “sequester” provision that automatically takes a slice out of almost every federal program.

Modeled after a similar provision in the successful Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law of the 1980s, this sequester puts real teeth in the CAP Act and ensures that the burden of government spending actually would be reduced.

Some people complain that Senator Corker’s plan is too timid and that it doesn’t balance the budget by 2021. While it would be desirable to impose additional fiscal restraint, the Tennessee Senator has deliberately chosen a more modest goal in order to attract support from colleagues on the other side of the aisle. And he does have Democratic co-sponsors, something that is critical given the composition of the Senate.

Since I’m just a policy wonk, I’ll leave it to the other people to argue about what’s feasible in the current political environment. My final comment, though, is that we’re on an unsustainable path that will lead to the end of American exceptionalism and turn the United States into a decrepit, European-style welfare state. So I’m not going to complain if someone has a plan that finally moves policy in the right direction, albeit not quite as fast as I prefer.

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