WASHINGTON, D.C., March 2, 2013 — Conservative politicians and media pundits have been arguing that sequestration will have a minor impact on America. It represents less than 2.5 percent of the federal budget, and scarcely half a percent of the U.S. economy. Spending this year won’t fall by $85 billion from last year, but will only grow by $85 billion less than had been planned; total spending will rise.
That’s all true, but conservatives are still wrong. Sequestration will be an utter disaster.
It will be a disaster because if it isn’t a disaster for the American people, it will be a disaster for President Obama and congressional Democrats. Their worst nightmare is that the sequester won’t hurt America, and so they will do their best to see that it does.
The sequester will be a disaster because it is imperative to Obama that it be a disaster.
Suppose for a moment that the growth of the budget were reduced by $85 billion in an intelligent way. Duplicate programs would be eliminated, there would be fewer lavish government conferences in Las Vegas, rather than perform studies to determine whether reading improves educational performance we would simply act as if it did. The economic damage would be nonexistent.
The argument that government must grow to maintain the health and security of Americans and the economy would be exposed as a lie.
That is precisely why the sequester will be a disaster. It will be engineered to be disastrous. Obama played the first round in that game by releasing over 2,000 illegal immigrants held for deportation in February, and documents show that the Department of Homeland Security intends to release 3,000 more in March.
Given a choice between cancelling a conference or firing TSA screeners, Obama will make sure that the screeners go while maintaining screening requirements, thus pushing air travelers into ever lower circles of Hell. Rather than see a duplicated or useless program eliminated, Obama will make sure that firemen go and America burns.
If your household spending must be cut by 2 percent, you’ll eliminate movies from your budget and carpool to work rather than cancel your insurance or cut off your utilities. That isn’t the situation facing the Obama Administration. Their greatest fear is that the sequester will hit and America will hardly notice. And because that fear is so acute and so profound, they will do everything they can to ensure that America is as terrified as they are.
President Franklin Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He wanted and needed America to face the future he charted with optimism and calm. Obama, on the other hand, needs and depends on our fear. His programs are supported by fear, and his warnings are designed to instill it at every turn. If his policies are as Keynesian as Roosevelt’s, in his approach to leadership he is the anti-Roosevelt.
And so the presidential bully pulpit has been devoted to warning of dire consequences and shouting “fire” on a regular basis. This time if there isn’t a fire, fires will be set. The first debt-ceiling crisis, the fiscal cliff, the sequester, and the impending new debt-ceiling crisis are all demands that the American people rise up in horror and give Obama free hand to pursue his agenda. Only if the house is burning around them will they give him carte blanche to save them from disaster.
The sequester will be painful, and deliberately so. There are ways the GOP could show their desire and their intention to mitigate that, but probably no way to do it short of caving on spending as they caved on taxes. They’ve considered granting Obama the authority to make the sequestration cuts in a less ham-fisted way, though given his incentives that might be a mistake. The principle of rational accountability is a good one, but only when the actors are rational about more than their immediate self-interest.
They should consider instead setting priorities themselves and enshrining them in legislation. They should have begun doing that when they first agreed to the sequester, but they’ve squandered their time playing a losing political game with the Democrats. The Senate and the President will refuse to cooperate at any rate, their goal being to completely break GOP resistance to their spending and taxing priorities, hence to their entire social-economic agenda.
Until the Democrats make clear that they understand that the only way to deal with the long-run deficit is to reform entitlements, there’s absolutely no point to the Republicans playing this game with them. There are no other spending cuts that will make a dent in the deficit, and there are no tax concessions the GOP can offer that will do so, either. Reforming the tax code and closing loopholes is a crucial step to returning the country to fiscal rationality, but it isn’t a substitute for reforming entitlements, and it shouldn’t be treated as a way to fix the deficit.
Obama is riding in on his horse, either Zorro or a horseman of the fiscal apocalypse. The betting here is on the apocalypse, or at least a lower circle of air-travel Hell.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. If we’re going to have an apocalypse, he’d prefer an Obama apocalypse to a Maya apocalypse. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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