Caleb O. Brown: This is a Cato special podcast.
I am Caleb Brown. In his speech last night to Congress, President
Trump promised big spending for the military for infrastructure and
by not talking about it much, he promised continued big spending on
entitlements. Cato Institute senior fellow Michael Tanner says that
looks an awful lot like the spending priorities of George W.
The big headline for libertarians and conservatives who are
serious about spending across the board is that the one area where
congressional Republicans and Barack Obama agreed on spending
restraint is the thing that Donald Trump wants to get rid of.
Michael D. Tanner: Big government, big
spending, conservatism is back with a vengeance. The one sort of
constant throughout Trump’s address was that he wanted to spend
more money. He wants to spend more money on the military, he wants
to spend more money on veterans, he wants to build a wall, he wants
to spend more money on infrastructure. Basically every problem the
country faces, his answer was that we should spend more money on
it. The one thing he doesn’t want to do anything with is changing,
of course, entitlement programs. He didn’t bring them up at all. So
how he is going to spend more money on everything, leave
entitlements unreformed, cut taxes, and still balance the budget,
that’s real magic if he could pull it off.
Caleb O. Brown: Ron Wyden, a senator from
Oregon, shortly, either during the speech or shortly after it,
tweeted out half our budget already goes to the military. And of
course he posted a pie chart of just the discretionary federal
spending, so at least, I think, Democrats and Donald Trump can
agree we need to leave entitlements alone.
Michael D. Tanner: Well that’s right. Why does
Trump — Wyden’s tweet was of course just plain silly. It’s
about 16% of total federal spending. What we miss is that 48% and
rising goes to entitlement programs, and about 38% of that is, or
38% of federal spending is just Social Security and Medicare, which
Trump wants to leave unchanged. If you do that and increase that
16% to 17%, 18%, 20%, you are just running out of places to
Caleb O. Brown: Alright, so does he propose
cuts? Does he care about cutting spending anywhere?
Michael D. Tanner: Well he has sort of in his
budget proposal talked about $56 billion in unspecified cuts. We
know that the state department is on the chopping block, probably
the EPA. Certainly there’s things we should be cutting, a lot of
things we should be cutting. But the problem is that we’ve been
cutting those things back, essentially, for years. The percentage
of spending that goes to domestic discretionary spending has
declined during the Obama administration.
Caleb O. Brown: And this just necessarily so,
right? I mean you’ve seen that as programs like entitlements
Michael D. Tanner: That’s right. Entitlements
are automatic spending. Basically they go up no matter what. That
doesn’t leave you a lot of areas to cut.
Caleb O. Brown: Automatic but not
Michael D. Tanner: Well that’s right. Congress
could intervene at some point and cut those, but they’d actually
have to affirmatively do that if they simply do nothing, which of
course is the politically safe course that spending continues to
rise as the population ages.
Caleb O. Brown: Donald Trump made his campaign
slogan “Make America Great Again” and American greatness
conservatism to the extent that it is back. It has always meant big
spending, hasn’t it?
Michael D. Tanner: That’s right. This is sort
of make government great again. In many ways it is surprising how
much Donald Trump looks like George W. Bush. He beat up on the
establishment in the campaign, but he really is talking about
Bush-style, big government, conservatism, where no matter what the
problem is, there’s a government solution. It might be a
conservative solution, but it is still imposed from Washington, it
still involves a great deal of spending. The idea is that as long
as it is being used for conservative or the right ends, big
government is justified.
Caleb O. Brown: So I refer to this a lot,
because I think it is important when Donald Trump talks about
compromise. He offered some compromise, it seemed, on immigration.
But I think back to when Rand Paul gave his first floor speech in
the Senate he offered a compromise, and that was I’ll put sacred
cows for Republicans on the chopping block if you put sacred cows
for Democrats on the chopping block. The compromise is almost
always on the side of more spending, but Donald Trump doesn’t seem
to be at all interested in compromising when it comes to reductions
Michael D. Tanner: Well that’s right. Donald
Trump is more than happy to give Democrats the spending they want
if they give him the spending he wants. Republicans, of course, are
happy to along with that as well. So we see calls for paid parental
leave. We see new childcare programs. We see we are going to build
a wall. We see protectionism. We see basically a lot of things that
Democrats want, along with a lot more spending for the military,
and veterans, and infrastructure, and things Republicans want.
Caleb O. Brown: How much of what he’s proposed
in terms of new spending is just dead on arrival. I spoke with Ben
Friedman. He says that this military spending hike, which amount to
about what, 10%, or a little less than the defense budget right
now. How much of that is just not going to happen?
Michael D. Tanner: Well already John McCain of
course has complained that the spending hikes Trump has proposed
for defense are not enough. He wants to see bigger defense hikes. I
think John McCain wouldn’t be satisfied until the entire federal
budget was one big defense program. That said, I do think there’s
going to be a lot of fights over these things, and he’s not going
to get all he wants. And of course that is typical Trump
negotiating style, is he demands a trillion dollars in
infrastructure and he will settle for $200 billion. The problem is
we can’t afford the $200 billion.
Caleb O. Brown: Michael Tanner is a senior
fellow at the Cato Institute.
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