Ever since President Trump and budget director Mick Mulvaney released a proposed federal budget that includes cuts in some programs, the Washington Post has been full of articles and letters about current and former officials and program beneficiaries who don’t want their budgets cut. Not exactly breaking news, you’d think. And not exactly a balanced discussion of pros and cons, costs and benefits. Consider just today’s examples:
[O]ver 100,000 former Fulbright scholars, among them several members of Congress, are being asked to lobby for not only full funding but also a small increase.
As a former Federal Aviation Administration senior executive with more than 30 years of experience in air traffic control, I believe it is a very big mistake to privatize such an important government function.
On Thursday, all seven former Senate‐confirmed heads of the Energy Department’s renewables office — including three former Republican administration officials — told Congress and the Trump administration that the deep budget cut proposed for that office would cripple its ability to function.
This is nothing new. Every time a president proposes to cut anything in the $4 trillion federal budget — up from $1.8 trillion in Bill Clinton’s last budget — reporters race to find “victims.” And of course no one wants to lose his or her job or subsidy, so there are plenty of people ready to defend the value of each and every government check. As I wrote at the Britannica Blog in 2011, when one very small program was being vigorously defended:
Every government program is “well worth the money” to its beneficiaries. And the beneficiaries are typically the ones who lobby to create, expand, and protect it. When a program is threatened with cuts, newspapers go out and ask the people “who will be most affected” by the possible cut. They interview farmers about whether farm programs should be cut, library patrons about library cutbacks, train riders about rail subsidy cuts. And guess what: all the beneficiaries oppose cuts to the programs that benefit them. You could write those stories without going out in the August heat to do the actual interviews.
Economists call this the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. The benefits of any government program — Medicare, teachers’ pensions, a new highway, a tariff — are concentrated on a relatively small number of people. But the costs are diffused over millions of consumers or taxpayers. So the beneficiaries, who stand to gain a great deal from a new program or lose a great deal from the elimination of a program, have a strong incentive to monitor the news, write their legislator, make political contributions, attend town halls, and otherwise work to protect the program. But each taxpayer, who pays little for each program, has much less incentive to get involved in the political process or even to vote.
A $4 trillion annual budget is about $12,500 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. If the budget could be cut by, say, $1 trillion — taking it back to the 2008 level — how much good could that money do in the hands of families and businesses? How many jobs could be created? How many families could afford a new car, a better school, a down payment on a home? Reporters should ask those questions when they ask subsidy recipients, How do you feel about losing your subsidy?