Tag: federal budget

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.

Paul Ryan’s Spending Plan

House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has introduced his annual budget blueprint. The plan will likely pass the House but won’t become law this year.

However, the plan signals the direction that House Republicans want to go in budget battles with the Democrats this year, and it also shows the likely thrust of policy under a possible Republican president next year.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Total federal outlays would fall from $3,624 billion this year to $3,530 billion next year. Those figures are $24 billion less than under President Obama’s budget this year and $187 billion next year.
  • Of the $187 billion savings compared to Obama next year, $38 billion would come from discretionary programs, $146 billion from so-called entitlements, and $3 billion from interest costs.
  • Ryan’s proposed spending in 2022 of $4,888 billion would be a modest 13 percent less than Obama’s proposed spending that year. That’s a useful statistic to remember when you read the inevitable stories about how Ryan would slash, burn, and pillage the government safety net.
  • Indeed, Ryan’s proposed increase in federal spending from $3,624 billion this year to $4,888 by 2022 represents fairly robust annual average growth of three percent.
  • As a share of GDP, the Ryan budget would trim outlays from 23.4 percent this year to 19.8 percent by 2022. That reduction would simply get spending back to around the normal historical level. And note that spending would still be higher than the 18.2 percent achieved in the last two years under President Clinton.
  • Ryan would repeal the 2010 health care law and reform Medicare by transitioning to a consumer-choice model. Those changes are expected to reduce annual outlays in 2022 by $258 billion.
  • Perhaps a more important proposal is the block-granting of Medicaid and other entitlement programs such as food stamps. Those Ryan reforms would save $313 billion annually by 2022.
  • Converting entitlements to block grants would allow the federal government to clamp down on federal costs while giving the states strong incentives to improve program efficiency.
  • The Ryan budget does not propose Social Security reform. Paul Ryan favors major reforms to this program, but he apparently thinks that reforming health care and other entitlements is a higher priority right now.
  • Aside from a few obvious targets—such as high-speed rail and the 2010 health care law—the Ryan budget shies away from abolishing specific programs, agencies, and departments.
  • Too often the Ryan budget proposes to fix broken programs when the proper reform would be elimination. Ryan proposes to “consolidate” federal job-training programs, for example, but these programs have a history of failure over the last five decades. Furthermore, job training is not a proper federal role within the U.S. constitutional structure.

In sum, Ryan’s proposals would make modest reforms to the giant federal welfare state. By Washington standards the Ryan plan is bold, and Paul Ryan certainly deserves his reputation as the sharpest and most energetic budget reformer on Capitol Hill.

However, there is too much happy talk in the Ryan plan about how failed big-government programs can be made to work better, and not enough focus on terminating activities that are properly state, local, and private in nature.

P.S. I think my budget-cutting plan is a better one.

According to Obama’s Budget, Burden of Federal Spending Will Be $2 Trillion Higher in 10 Years

President Obama’s budget proposal was unveiled today, generating all sorts of conflicting statements from both parties.

Some of the assertions wrongly focus on red ink rather than the size of government. Others rely on dishonest Washington budget math, which means spending increases magically become budget cuts simply because outlays are growing at a slower rate than previously planned.

When you strip away all the misleading and inaccurate rhetoric, here’s the one set of numbers that really matters. If we believe the President’s forecasts (which may be a best-case scenario), the burden of federal spending will grow by $2 trillion between this year and 2022.

In all likelihood, the actual numbers will be worse than this forecast.

The President’s budget, for instance, projects that the burden of federal spending will expand by less than 1 percent next year. That sounds like good news since it would satisfy Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

But don’t believe it. If we look at the budget Obama proposed last year, federal spending was supposed to fall this year. Yet the Obama Administration now projects that outlays in 2012 will be more than 5 percent higher than they were in 2011.

The most honest assessment of the budget came from the President’s Chief of Staff, who openly stated that, “the time for austerity is not today.”

With $2 trillion of additional spending (and probably more), that’s the understatement of the century.

What makes this such a debacle is that other nations have managed to impose real restraints on government budgets. The Baltic nations have made actual cuts to spending. And governments in Canada, New Zealand, Slovakia, and Ireland generated big improvements by either freezing budgets or letting them grow very slowly.

I’ve already pointed out that the budget could be balanced in about 10 years if the Congress and the President displayed a modest bit of fiscal discipline and allowed spending to grow by no more than 2 percent annually.

But the goal shouldn’t be to balance the budget. We want faster growth, more freedom, and constitutional government. All of these goals (as well as balancing the budget) are made possible by reducing the burden of federal spending.

The New Pentagon Budget: Better, but Not Great

The changes announced in the Pentagon’s new budget guidance are, from my perspective, mostly good news, but woefully insufficient. They show how even limited austerity encourages prioritization among weapons systems that suddenly have to compete. A few more budgets like this and we’ll be getting somewhere.

The White House has not yet released the actual budget, but the Pentagon yesterday released a new document that explains the minor cuts in line for its slice. The document, unlike all the other defense strategy and guidance documents that have come out in recent years, sticks to plain English, avoids geopolitical gobbledygook, and tells you the budgetary impacts of its assertions. For that alone the Pentagon deserves some credit.

The document claims to be a guide to savings of $487 billion over 10 years. But you only get that figure by counting against past White House budget requests and their associated spending trajectory. We are saving just $6 billion from fiscal year 2012 to 2013, or 3.2% adjusted for inflation. If we leave out falling war costs, we have essentially frozen defense spending for two fiscal years (2011 and 2012), letting it grow at about inflation and then slightly slower, respectively. The Pentagon expects defense spending to grow at the rate of inflation or faster starting in fiscal year 2014, although their estimates of inflation are self-serving.

The new spending trajectory would cut about 8 percent from the base budget by the end of the decade. That’s from a budget that doubled in real terms from 1998 until 2012. And some of those savings are not really saved; they have simply migrated into the war budget. Keep in mind also that those savings are just a plan, one that is unlikely to last, particularly as presidents and Congresses change.

The biggest change in this budget is the beginning in a reduction of ground forces. The document says we will cut 80,000 troops from the Army and 20,000 from the Marines. The rationale is solid: we are probably not going to be committing large numbers of troops to another occupation of a populous country in revolt any time soon. Yet the cut leaves both forces with more personnel than they had prior to the expansion of ground forces that began in 2008. A real strategic shift away from occupational warfare would entail a bigger drawdown of Army and Marine personnel.

The document also reaffirms the administration’s decision to remove two army brigades from Europe, roughly halving our combat presence there. That’s good news given the absence of threat there and our NATO allies’ free-riding on U.S. taxpayers. But it only amounts to recommitting to a Bush administration plan. And we are unfortunately adding troops in the Philippines and Australia, at best a useless gesture that may encourage China’s military buildup.

The budget also takes a useful step in reducing the amount of tactical Air Force squadrons by six. Given the precision-revolution in targeting that makes each aircraft far more destructive and the increased Navy capability to strike targets from carriers, far bigger cuts in these forces are possible. Oddly, this reduction comes without a planned reduction in the purchase of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

Even worse, the Pentagon here reaffirms its commitment to the F-35B—the short-take-off and vertical landing version—taking it off “probation.” That version is meant to fly on amphibious landing ships to support missions where Marines attack shorelines. It’s hard to imagine such a mission where helicopters are insufficient for air-support and there is no carrier-based aircraft available to help the Marines, especially now that the Pentagon is again planning on operating 11 carriers.

The new version of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle is evidence of austerity forcing choices. The Pentagon now wants to cancel it because it is at least as expensive as the U-2 manned aircraft, which accomplishes similar tasks. This budget also usefully endorses the early retirement of some of our airlift capacity and tries to kill a new Army ground combat vehicle.

Another positive development is the request for two new rounds of base closures. This process requires legislation from Congress to form a Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC).

Still, the hard choices here are few. Many observers were hopeful that budget savings would include cutting our excessive means of delivering nuclear weapons. But while the proposal delays production of the new ballistic missile submarine and speaks vaguely of a “different” sort of nuclear arsenal, it supports the continuation of the triad. There is still hope on this front, however. The Air Force plans to build its next bomber initially without nuclear weapons delivery capability, adding it later in development. That amounts to dangling bait for budget cutters. Like the F-35B, the nuclear bomber has an unnecessary mission that a more austere budget would cause us to reconsider

So while the changes in this budget may be the first step toward a more restrained military posture, including perhaps a strategy of offshore balancing, they are a minor one. A true offshore balancing strategy would involve a greater shift of resources from the Army to the Navy. This budget, by contrast, seems unlikely to end the traditional budget split where each service gets roughly one-third of the base.

Unsurprisingly, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used his press conference yesterday to push Congress to amend the Budget Control Act to avoid sequestration, the across-the-board cuts in the Pentagon’s budget due next January, which would roughly double the cuts outlined here. I have argued that these pleas seem to play into Republicans’ hand in the coming budget negotiations. Readers should also know that the Pentagon could avoid the “meat-axe” nature of sequestration (to use Panetta’s language) by budgeting at the level sequestration would accomplish, roughly $492 billion, or about what non-war defense spending was in 2007. That would let the Pentagon choose how to make cuts. The strategic insights guiding these minor cuts could be exploited to make those larger ones.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.