Tag: federal budget

Can Americans Handle Candor?

Today Politico Arena asks:

Is Paul Ryan’s budgetary candor harming GOP congressional candidates?

My response:

Today’s Arena question boils down to this: are Americans able to handle the truth—that we’re going broke, as Paul Ryan puts it, plainly. P.T. Barnum allegedly said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Unfortunately, voters too often prove him right.

As I implied in my post yesterday, Robin Hood Democrats, promising “free goods” provided by the rich, are betting that Americans are too stupid to see through their many scams. Their cynicism is as boundless as their politics of personal destruction. To take the simplest example, in June 2009, and often since, Obama assured us: “No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise: … If you like your healthcare plan, you will be able to keep your healthcare plan. Period. No one will take it away. No matter what.” As Professors Richard Epstein and David Hyman have shown, he’s already broken that promise in multiple ways.

But give the president his due: he makes Robin Hood look like a piker. His latest? In Iowa yesterday he announced that the federal government will purchase over $150 million in meat and fish to help ranchers survive the drought. “That food is going to be spent by folks over at the Pentagon and other places.” Never mind that you don’t “spend food,” this is simply shades of Solyndra—the flimflammery that runs through this feckless administration. But the main question is, will Americans fall for it again?

A Modest Victory for Transparency and Accountability in the DoD Budget

Earlier this week I wrote about the Obama administration’s proposal to shift $5.6 billion dollars out of the Pentagon’s base budget into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. Because the OCO budget was exempted from last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA), this gimmick was clearly intended to allow the Pentagon to evade the BCA limits, and had attracted the attention of House Budget chair Paul Ryan (R-WI), Republican Study Committee chair Jim Jordan (R-OH), and a handful of budget watchers. I anticipated that one or more members would call attention to it during floor debate over the defense bill.

Sure enough, on Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) offered an amendment to undo the shift. Unfortunately, Mulvaney’s amendment was ruled out of order, ignoring the fact that the entire defense bill exceeded the BCA spending limits and thus also should have been ruled out of order. I thought the proposal to fix the dubious OCO shift would die there.

Not so. Undaunted, Mulvaney returned with a new amendment co-sponsored with Reps. Jordan and Peter Welch (D-VT) that did not actually transfer any funds—thus conforming to House rules—but that expressed the same goals articulated in the earlier amendment. As Mulvaney, Jordan, and Welch explained in a “dear colleague” letter:

Our amendment, similar to a Sense of the House resolution, supports the policy of moving $5.6 billion in non-war costs back to the Base Budget. It fully supports the resources our troops on the battlefield will need, but it does not actually transfer any funding. It simply highlights a non-partisan issue—accountability and transparency—by demonstrating support to move these non-war costs back to the Base Budget in the FY13 CR and future budget requests. (Emphasis in original)

The gambit worked: the resolution passed 238-178, with strong bipartisan support. House Armed Services Committee chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) voted no, as did Appropriations chair Harold “Hal” Rogers (R-KY) and the House Appropriations Committee-Defense Subcommittee chair C.W. Bill Young (R-FL). But 154 Republicans voted for the amendment, including Budget chairman Ryan, House whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), and Rules Committee chair David Dreier (R-CA).

It was a modest, and largely symbolic, victory for transparency and accountability. The next step is to end the war in Afghanistan and eliminate the OCO account entirely. That separate pot of money for the war(s) has served to obscure the enormous growth in the Pentagon’s base budget over the past decade.

A Few Questions for Paul Krugman

I am not a budget expert, but I saw Paul Krugman interviewed on the PBS Newshour program last evening and had a few questions.

Here’s an excerpt from that interview:

PAUL KRUGMAN:

I guess I don’t know how you can be honest about what is actually going on in this country without sounding partisan. That’s the old line, right? The facts have a well-known liberal bias, because, right now, we’re in a world where deficits are a good thing and a little bit more inflation would also be a good thing.

PAUL SOLMAN:

A proposal that’s put him at odds with the man who hired him at Princeton, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.

Tom Ashbrook asked him about it.

TOM ASHBROOK:

Ben Bernanke calls your proposal very reckless.

PAUL KRUGMAN:

Odd, because he made the same proposal himself 12 years ago for Japan.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL KRUGMAN:

Those of us who have been calling for a bit more inflation are calling for 4 percent inflation, which is what we had back during the reign of Ronald Reagan in his second term. It didn’t seem that terrible to me at the time.

PAUL SOLMAN:

But we could be taking a big risk, right? You have no way of knowing whether or not the interest rate we’re going to have to offer to borrowers might change overnight, as it has often recently.

PAUL KRUGMAN:

Well, I am reasonably sure that isn’t going to happen until or unless the U.S. economy is really on the path to recovery. And that’s the point also when – by the way, when I will support the austerity. Once we no longer need that support to keep the economy afloat, that’s when you do want to start raising taxes and cutting spending, but not now.

A few questions for Mr. Krugman:

  1. I don’t know whether you agree with the proposition that we’re about $100 trillion in debt, but if we were, could we really afford to postpone (again) deep spending cuts? Wouldn’t  the time for cuts be … yesterday?
  2. You say that you would support spending cuts when the overall economy gathers more strength, but isn’t the record clear that the pols have neglected to reduce spending during previous periods of economic growth?
  3. What evidence leads you to believe the pols will act differently if economic growth were robust? Wouldn’t they seek to avoid the political pain of cuts and be seduced (again) by those who say the United States can “grow our way out of the debt problem”?

New Paper Argues for Immediate, Practical Cuts in Military Spending

A new report published today by the Project on Defense Alternatives  argues for $17-$20 billion in immediate savings to the Fiscal Year 2013 defense budget. I co-authored the report along with Benjamin Friedman of Cato, and PDA’s Carl Conetta, Charles Knight, and Ethan Rosenkranz. Those savings come from 18 line items—personnel, weapons systems, and programs—that could be implemented quickly. Adjustments to U.S. national security strategy are not a prerequisite for these options, which are relatively low-hanging fruit.

The 2013 defense authorization bill will move to the House floor this week. Many members are expected to offer amendments, some allowing savings in the defense budget. During the debates that are about to ensue„ it is important to keep in mind just how large the defense budget has become. As our paper notes, the national defense base budget constitutes 52 percent of discretionary spending, separate from the war account. Since 2000, it has risen by 90 percent in nominal terms and 42 percent in real terms. If Washington is serious about addressing the nation’s massive fiscal challenge, many programs will have to be cut or reformed. The Pentagon should not be expected to bear all of the costs; other departments and agencies will also have to contribute. But there has not yet been a significant decline in the Pentagon’s base budget, contrary to what some have claimed.

The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 places an initial discretionary spending cap on National Defense for 2013 at $546 billion. Both President Obama’s request, and the House Republican’s budget exceed the BCA caps. In addition, the BCA requires $110 billion in spending cuts in January 2013 via sequestration, half of which need to come from DoD. Neither the White House nor Congress plans for that to occur; both sides hope to amend the law and achieve equal deficit reductions by other means. As it currently stands, though they disagree on how. Republicans want to cut other spending, Democrats to raise taxes. The options outlined in our paper could facilitate these negotiations, by revealing savings in the DoD budget that will not damage our national security.

The savings options in the report focus on reducing or curtailing:

  •  Assets and capabilities that mismatch or substantially exceed current and emerging military challenges;
  • Assets and capabilities for which more cost-effective alternatives exist;
  • Investments that are tied to the past, reflecting bureaucratic inertia or individual’s service interests, rather than current collective defense needs;
  • Acquisition programs that exhibit serious, persistent cost overruns, while failing to deliver  promised capability, and
  • Acquisition programs that are based on immature or unproven technologies.

Further savings are possible if we rethink our strategy, missions, and national security commitments. Ben Friedman and I have long argued this point. Until then, the options presented in “Defense Sense” are limited in scope in an effort to pave the way toward responsibly balancing national security ends, ways, and means.

Although I encourage everyone to look at the report, here are just five of the 18 cuts that policymakers should immediately consider:

  • Military personnel in Europe: Remove additional 10,000 military personnel by end of FY 2013; save $100 million in FY 2013 and $188 million per year once complete
  • Active-component military personnel: Reduce end-strength by an additional 10,000 personnel; save $400 million in FY 2013 and $860 million recurring annual savings once complete
  • Missile Defense: Focus on procurement and end-stage development on systems with proven, reliable, cost-effective capability (see report for details); save $2.5 billion in FY 2013
  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Cancel USMC variant; buy equivalent numbers F/A-18 E/F; save $1.8 billion in FY 2013
  • Littoral Combat Ship (LCS): End procurement at 10 and seek alternative; save $2 billion in FY 2013

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Paul Ryan and His Catholic Critics

In today’s Washington Post, the paper’s Dana Milbank treats us to “A faith-based lesson for Paul Ryan.” He takes Ryan to task for his Georgetown University speech last Thursday defending the House Republican budget. Earlier, it seems, Ryan had told the Christian Broadcasting Network that his budget was crafted “using my Catholic faith” as inspiration. That was more than the reliably liberal U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops could bear. Never shy about instructing Congress on the moral dimensions of the federal budget, the bishops wrote to Members, Milbank notes,

 saying that the Ryan budget, passed by the House, “fails to meet” the moral criteria of the Church, namely its view that any budget should help “the least of these” as the Christian Bible requires: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the jobless. “A just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.”

“To their credit,” Milbank continues, “Catholic leaders were not about to let Ryan claim to be serving God when in fact he was serving mammon.” And he adds that a group of Jesuit scholars and other Georgetown faculty members had already written to Ryan to say that his budget “appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

No shrinking violet, Ryan met his critics head-on with a lengthy defense of his budget on both factual and moral grounds. As Milbank quotes him:

the faculty members would benefit from a “fact-based conversation” on the issue. “I suppose that there are some Catholics who for a long time thought they had a monopoly … on the social teaching of our church,” … but no more. “The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it.”

Not so, says Milbank, but he never grapples with the pressing economic facts that Ryan set out, preferring instead to speak of the bishops’ “rebuke” to Ryan’s “fanaticism.” He quotes Ryan’s “challenge to the theologians’ theology”—“The holy father himself, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations’”—but then rests content to conclude that “even Jesus said to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” omitting the pope’s final words: we are “living in untruth.”

The bishops, too, are living in untruth. Just as they failed to grasp that their promotion of Obama’s health care overhaul would entail intractable questions about abortion and contraceptive coverage, so too they fail here to grasp not only the economic implications of our burgeoning welfare state but the moral implications of the pope’s point—that just as it is wrong to live at the expense of future generations, so too is it wrong to live at the expense of our neighbors, which is the ultimate point toward which Ryan is driving. And no biblical story captures that point better than the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A year ago, when the new 111th Congress was first wrestling with these same issues, I wrote in the Wall Street Journal that people like Milbank and the bishops

 ask, implicitly, how “we” should spend “our” money, as though we were one big family quarreling over our collective assets. We’re not. We’re a constitutional republic, populated by discrete individuals, each with our own interests. Their question socializes us and our wherewithal. The Framers’ Constitution freed us to make our own individual choices.

The irony is that Jesus, properly understood, saw this clearly — both when he asked us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s, and when he spoke of the Good Samaritan. [Milbank and the bishops] imagine that the Good Samaritan parable instructs us to attend to the afflicted through the coercive government programs of the modern welfare state. It does not. The Good Samaritan is virtuous not because he helps the fallen through the force of law but because he does so voluntarily, which he can do only if he has the right to freely choose the good, or not.

Americans are a generous people. They will help the less fortunate if left free to do so. What they resent is being forced to do good — and in ways that are not only inefficient but impose massive debts upon their children. That’s not the way free people help the young and less fortunate.

Far from “fanatical,” Ryan’s budget, respecting the bounds of the politically possible, is a responsible approach to addressing the bipartisan budgetary sins of the past. It rejects the path that “dissolves the common good of society, and dishonors the dignity of the human person,” Ryan told the Georgetown audience. And it offers a better path than we’ve been on, a path “consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith.” By returning power to individuals, families, and communities, he concluded, “we put our trust in people, not in government.”

More Evidence that Uncle Sam Is Uncle Sucker (but U.S. Voters Aren’t)

As has become an annual tradition, my colleague Charles Zakaib has sifted through the data from the latest edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ The Military Balance and created several illuminating charts. They are enclosed below and show U.S. security spending as a share of the global total, U.S. per capita spending as compared with some of our leading allies, and U.S. spending vs. the rest of NATO as a share of GDP.

The data demonstrate that Americans in 2010 spent vastly more in every sense of the term. We accounted for 47.65 percent of global security spending. We each spent more than $2,200 on the Pentagon’s budget, and hundreds more when you factor in other security spending (e.g., Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and nuclear weapons). That represents a 72 percent increase in real, inflation-adjusted dollars since 1998, whereas the United Kingdom and Denmark increased by 5 and 6 percent, respectively. Six NATO countries saw per capita spending decline: Italy’s has fallen by 35 percent since 1998; France by 14 percent; and 12 percent in Portugal. The aggregate numbers paint a similar picture: between 1999 and 2010, U.S. spending as a share of GDP rose from 3.15 to 4.77, whereas the rest of NATO declined from 2.05 to 1.61 percent.

The reason why those trends prevail is straightforward: people aren’t inclined to pay for something if someone else is willing to buy it for them. Conservatives understand that dynamic when it applies to housing allowances or food stamps for the less fortunate here in the United States. They ignore it when it applies to buying security for the relatively well off in Europe and Asia.

That blindness is evident in Paul Ryan’s latest budget plan. As Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven observed earlier this week, Ryan is willing to reduce spending on many domestic programs, but he could have gone much further on the grounds that the federal government does many things that are more appropriately handled by state or local governments or, even better, by the private sector.

Ryan makes an exception for the Pentagon, allowing its budget to grow on top of the massive increases from the past decade. Ryan and others contend that national defense is a core function of government, and therefore should not be treated equally with spending on other programs that are not.

I agree: The Constitution clearly stipulates that the federal government should provide for the “common defence.” It makes no mention of subsidizing mortgages, Amtrak, or sugar. But I anxiously await Rep. Ryan’s explanation for why American taxpayers should be expected to subsidize social welfare spending in other countries. By relieving other governments from their solemn obligation to provide for the common defense of their citizens, we have allowed and encouraged them to divert their resources elsewhere.

That realization is dawning on a growing number of Americans, and they aren’t happy about it. In a just-published book, The People’s Money: How Voters Will Balance the Budget and Eliminate the Federal Debt , pollster Scott Rasmussen explains the looming gap between voters and the Political Class. Rasmussen will be at Cato next week to talk about his book, and I’ll be writing more about his findings in the future. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with just three poll findings that should trouble Republicans who believe Paul Ryan’s approach to military spending is a political winner.

  • 82 percent believe economic challenges are a bigger concern than military ones.
  • Only 35 percent of voters would leave DoD spending off the table in the search for savings.
  • 79 percent of voters think we spend too much defending others. A mere 4 percent think we don’t spend enough.

Paul Ryan’s Budget: It’s Still Big Government

Chris Edwards provided an ample overview of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget proposal, so I won’t rehash the numbers. Instead, I’ll just add a few comments.

Democrats and the left will squeal that Paul Ryan’s budget proposal is a massive threat to the poor, the sick, the elderly, etc, etc. It’s baloney, but a part of me thinks that he might deserve it. Why? Because the excessive rhetoric employed by the left to criticize lower spending levels for domestic welfare programs isn’t much different than the excessive rhetoric Ryan uses to argue against sequestration-induced reductions in military spending. For instance, Ryan speaks of the “devastation to America’s national security” that sequestration would allegedly cause. (See Christopher Preble’s The Pentagon Budget: Myth vs. Reality).

Now I’m sure that I’ll receive emails admonishing me for failing to recognize that the Constitution explicitly gives the federal government the responsibility to defend the nation while the constitutionality of domestic welfare programs isn’t quite so clear. Okay, but what are Ryan’s views on the constitutionality of domestic welfare programs?

At the outset of Ryan’s introduction to his plan, he quotes James Madison and says that the Founders designed a “Constitution of enumerated powers, giving the federal government broad authority over only those matters that must have a single national response, while sharply restricting its authority to intrude on those spheres of activity better left to the states and the people.” That’s nice, but then he proceeds to make statements like this:

But when government mismanagement and political cowardice turn this element of the social contract into an empty promise, seniors are threatened with denied access to care and the next generation is threatened with a debt that destroys its hard earned prosperity. Both consequences would violate President Lyndon B. Johnson’s pledge upon signing the Medicare law: ‘No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine…No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts.’ To fulfill Johnson’s pledge in the 21st century, America’s generations-old health and retirement security programs must be saved and strengthened.

Social contract? Well, so much for those enumerated limits on federal power.

Ryan’s “Statement of Constitutional and Legal Authority” only cites Congress’s general power to tax and spend. Based on the contents of his proposal, which would do little to rein in the federal government’s scope, one could conclude that Ryan’s view of federal power is almost as expansive as that of his Democratic colleagues. Yes, Ryan would reduce the size of government by reducing federal spending as a percentage of GDP. But as I often point out, promises to reduce spending in the future don’t mean a lot when you have a federal government that has the ability to spend money on pretty much any activity that it wants. And under Ryan’s plan, the federal government would be able to continue spending money on pretty much any activity that it wants.