March 05, 2010
David Brooks on Deficit Cutting Mirages
In a recent column, Innovation Conservative David Brooks calls out both Democrats and Republicans as perpetuating "mirages" for advocating cuts to discretionary spending as deficit reduction measures, and argues that those advocating for increased investments in productive areas need to band together to address entitlements, as growing entitlement spending will impose constraints on those investments in the future.
The coming budget cuts have nothing to do with merit. They have to do with the inexorable logic of mathematics. Over the past decades, spending in nearly every section of the federal budget has exploded to unsustainable levels. Each year, your family's share of the national debt increases by about $12,000. By 2015, according to Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office, Moody's will downgrade U.S. debt.
The greatest pressure comes from entitlements. Spending on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the debt has now risen to 47 percent of the budget. In nine years, entitlements are estimated to consume 64 percent of the budget, according to the invaluable folks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. By 2030, they are projected consume 70 percent of the budget.
When you throw in other politically untouchable programs, like Veterans Affairs, you arrive at a situation in which a vast majority of the budget is off limits to politicians who are trying to control debt. All cuts must, therefore, be made in the tiny sliver of the budget where the most valuable programs reside and where the most important investments in our future are made.
Over the next few weeks, Republicans will try to cut discretionary spending to 2008 levels and tell their constituents they are boldly reducing the size of government. That is a mirage. Anybody who doesn't take on entitlement spending is an enabler of big government. The supposedly rabid Republican freshmen are actually big government conservatives. They will cut programs that do measurable good while doing little to solve our long-range fiscal crisis.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration theoretically opposes runaway debt while it operationally expands it. The president is unwilling to ask for shared sacrifice if the Republicans won't ask with him. Fine. But he hasn't even used his pulpit to prepare the ground. He announces unserious cuts with lavish fanfare.
Since most of the budget is untouchable, the budget ax will fall on every section of the discretionary budget. It will fall on the just and unjust alike, regardless of merit.
The implication is this: If people who care about this or that domestic program fight alone, hoping that their own program will be spared, then they will all perish alone. If they have any chance of continuing their work, they will have to band together and fight their common enemy, the inexorable growth of entitlement spending.
Brooks is one of a collection of notable conservatives, including George Will and the American Enterprise Institute's Steve Hayward, who recognize that limited but energetic investments in science, technology, and education are absolutely paramount to future American prosperity. President Obama spelled this out nicely in last month's State of the Union. Yet it's these very investments that are at risk.
What's your take? How should we deal with future deficits so that critical investments in America's future aren't invariably on the chopping block?