Thursday, September 22, 2005

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You can't handle the budget cuts!!

So I'm glad that the Porkbusters meme is catching on and all, and that there's some small-government criticism of this administration -- even on the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page.

This would not be, however, unless I was disenchanted with something [And pining over Salma Hayek!!-ed.]. So it's worth pointing out that Virginia Postrel is correct:

I'm all for taking pork out of the federal budget, with or without Katrina, but the big money is elsewhere. How about delaying the Medicare prescription drug benefit?

Oh, while we're at it, let's kill Amtrak too -- and the f@$%ing moondoggle as well. UPDATE: Damn!! I forgot about the farm subsidies!

I would like to think that outrage over the ballooning size of government will lead to some of this steps, but the political scientist in me is hugely skeptical. Budget cuts always sound great in the abstract, but as a policy it's identical to trade liberalization -- the benefits of fiscal stringency are diffuse and indirect, while the costs of budget-cutting are tangible and obvious. True, it's tough to get maudlin about bridges to nowhere, but I can easily picture media accounts demonstrating the tragic losses from cutting Amtrak or the space program, all to shave a quarter of a point off the interest rate. This would be even easier to do with the prescription drug benefit. And while it's OK to scorn government spending that doesn't affect you, once budget-cutting affects your bread and butter, suddenly the public trough looks mighty tasty.

To paraphrase A Few Good Men:

Jessep: You want budget cuts?

Kaffee: I think I'm entitled to them.

Jessep: You want them?

Kaffee: I want the cuts!

Jessep: You can't handle the cuts! Son, we live in a world that needs quasi-public goods. And those needs have to be funded by men in Congress. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for small government and you curse the ballooning deficit. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that big government, while tragic, probably enriched some lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, enriches some lives...You don't want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want big government. You need big government.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum is equally cynical:

[L]et's face it: none of these cuts are very likely to happen ó and even if they did pass, everyone knows the whole thing would die in the Senate. Getting on the anti-pork bandwagon is sort of a freebie that makes you look good with only a small risk of actually having to follow through.

ANOTHER UPDATE: On second thought, maybe I'm being too pessimistic. If AEI's Veronique de Rugy is correct, then Bush has expanded nondefense discretionary spending by the greatest percentage since LBJ (link via Andrew Sullivan and Nick Gillespie). Maybe, just maybe, there's so much execrable spending that cuts are politically viable.

posted by Dan on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM


How about delaying the Medicare prescription drug benefit?

As one who's in the biz, I'd personally be very happy to see this done, mainly because CMS doesn't really have its act together and is still making changes to regulations, communications protocols, etc., even with less than two weeks before marketing is set to begin.

On the other hand, bear in mind that a lot of money has already gone into getting ready for it. Some start-ups will be put in a rather bad situation by a year-long delay, and even established companies won't be crazy about having part D staff having to basically sit on their hands for a year.

posted by: kenB on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

What *is* it with conservatives and Amtrak?* There is no other long-distance passenger rail in the US. It is a good hedge against $100/BBL oil to keep such a service available. And 500M to $1B a year is chump change in this day and age. Meanwhile, many of us enjoy the occasional train trip from NY to Washington or Boston, or an excursion to the WA mountains.

* I have the same question about the US Mail. Almost no country in the world has a privatized mail system. And surely, the US Mail was certainly part of the founding fathers' original intent. They established it, after all.

posted by: mac on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]


What transportation need is met by Amtrak anywhere but in the Northeast? The cities are too far apart in the rest of the country to serve well. Living here in Atlanta, I can (well -- could) fly to New Orleans in an hour. I can drive there in 6-7. On Amtrak, it takes all %^&%#ing day. It's a pretty enough ride, but who wants to spend the day on the train more than once? If affordability is the issue, take the bus.

I understand the attraction of train touring. If enough people want it, they should pay for the privelege. If not enough want it...welcome to the Free Market.


Don't underestimate the possible power of this pork thing. Budget hawkery can be made an issue -- see the otherwise implausible career of Ross Perot. And the internet does have a capacity to sustain this issue...It's easy to google up pork, and it's something any blogger can do.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

...the political scientist in me is hugely skeptical. Budget cuts always sound great in the abstract, but as a policy it's identical to trade liberalization -- the benefits of fiscal stringency are diffuse and indirect, while the costs of budget-cutting are tangible and obvious.

As a political scientist, do you have any suggestions of political reform that could address this? I made a few inexpert suggestions over at Pejman and Zathras's new blog. They don't address this root cause, but are targeted at some of the current incentives for pork.

posted by: fling93 on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

In a comment on that blog, I should say.

posted by: fling93 on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

Kaffee: Did you order the earmark?

Jessup: I did the job I -

Kaffee: Did you order the earmark?

Jessup: You're goddamn right I did!

posted by: Klug on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

Love that Salma.

posted by: rakehell on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

Personally, I still think my spin on A Few Good Men for Rathergate was better... but I'm biased.

posted by: Nick on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

Sweet jiminy christmas.

I got your budget savings right here:

Axe the Medicare prescription benefit, and freeze the death tax at its current mark (3 million, IIRC). Eliminate the bridge to nowhere (ere, to that island in Alaska, anyway).

And that's a good start.

posted by: Scipio on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

....well, pining over Salma Hayek is in exactly the same fantasy mode as wishing for big cuts in Federal spending.

It will NOT happen.

With the government now absorbing ~ 45% of GDP ... It should be obvious to all that Federal spending dramatically expands under both liberal Democratic & 'conservative' Republican rule.

"Voluntary" budget cuts of substance are not possible under the present system of American government.

The Federal dollar printing-presses meet any spending whimsy by our wise & noble leaders.... and there is no limit to their whimsy.

It will stop only when a severe financial crisis ultimately results for the nation (e.g., hyperinflation or debt default).

posted by: BajerM on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

Dan talks about spending cuts becoming "politically viable" the way Minnesotans talk about whether lake ice will support fishing sheds and snowmobiles -- it either happens or it doesn't.

To actually become viable spending cuts require a core group of legislators, executive branch officials and others committed to them. This means these people need to know, in depth, all about the programs or line items they are proposing to cut. In practice this necessary condition is rarely fulfilled. Farm subsidies can be demonstrated to be wasteful and economically counterproductive -- but the demonstration is only persuasive if you can explain how the subsidy programs work, and most of their critics in Washington don't even understand how they work. The same applies (especially among Democrats) to major procurement items in the Pentagon budget. And to tax breaks for the domestic oil industry, and line items for individual constituencies in Alaska, and on and on.

So Kevin Drum throws out the idea of cutting farm subsidies. Big deal. Guys like that, whose real interest is in campaign politics, can't do anything but throw around debating points on a serious policy issue like this, and they'll fold up the minute someone on their side of the aisle asks them why they are urging cuts in his program (Kevin Drum, meet Tom Harkin).

The truth is that to cut spending in Washington you need more conservative Republican ideologues -- not electioneering hands like, well, most of the people who work in the Bush White House, or slackwits of whom there are a couple dozen in the House Republican Caucus, but genuine free-market types like Richard Lugar who are aware not only of how the programs they want to cut work now but what the positive and negative consequences of cutting them are likely to be. We don't have that many such people in Congress. We're not likely to get that many more.

Maybe, if we're lucky, we could get up enough alarm about deficits spiralling upward to revive some of the old Gramm-Rudman rules. These emphasized across-the-board spending limits, which are poor policy for all sorts of reasons but at least put some restraint on discretionary spending. But maybe not.

posted by: Zathras on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

Considering the phony numbers used to to build support for the Prescription Drug plan, in addition to the hurricane relief packages, there seems to be an opening to reconsider the bill altogether.

I'm still dancing to the Health Savings Account tune, but the bill looks to ballon into a hand out for the pharmaceutical industry. If the 10 year estimates are anything like that of the 60's Medicare budget projections than it's going to be even worse than I can imagine.

The itemized pork reductions are good ways to cut the federal budget. However, the media will have a field day with the list of cuts. It would be like moving your kids into a tent in the ice cream aisle of the grocery store and then asking them to find the ice cream.

The last thing the Republicans need to do is ask for more scrutiny of the House by the media. The House Republican leadership is giving signals that they recognize the political obstacles.

posted by: Brennan Stout on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

Donít forget that Colonel Jessep ultimately lost the case. He got convicted. And it was his own speech that did him in.

posted by: ivan on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

Things have been in the hands of conservative ideologues for the past 11 years, and look where they've taken us. Sorry boys, your shelf life has expired-it's time to take out the trash. We have to figure out ways to make our existing expenditures work better, and it may preclude slashing them . . . unless of course we can find a vast pool of workers from the upper 1% willing to volunteer? I didn't think so!

posted by: Rafael Nieto on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]


If you rely on the experts in Congress to change the law, nothing happens, because the experts are usually the reason the law got that way to begin with.

What public pressure -- including the blog blovating and porkbusters -- can accomplish is inspiring the experts with some nervousness. They hear "we must cut" and come up with ideas to deal with at least some of the pressure, while preserving the things they find important. It begins a prioritization process, which seems to have been entirely lacking the last 3-4 years. Something might happen.

People do need to get angry, though, for any of this to happen. Not angry in the Kos fashion that calls people a bunch of names, but that kind of cold hard anger that looks for alternatives the the messed up system we have now. That happened in 1994. Could happen in 2006.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

The Medicare boondoggle happened because Bush had promised it in 2000. Bush promised it in 2000 because there was, at the time, a bipartisan consensus (i.e., the Democrats argued it and the Republicans were afraid to disagree) that Medicare needed to cover prescription drugs.

These days, hardly anyone seems to have a good word about the idea. Is it possible that we could create the bipartisan consensus to dismantle the program? Probably not, since despite their faux outrage about the cost, the Democrats think the thing isn't generous enough, and their preferred solution is price controls.

posted by: Crank on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

Amtrak is inefficient, true. But to eliminate it means to eliminate long distance passenger rail from the entire country. Like the LA trolleys, it is not something to get back easily if in the future it is determined that eliminating it was a mistake. It genuinely is a hedge against high oil prices.

I'm all for eliminating a few routes. But I am also in favor of giving it a real try, like upgrading rail lines (a good idea anyway), and suing freight companies that renig on right-of-way contracts.

I am sure the airlines and the auto industries would be happy to see a potential competitor eliminated. But I for one am happy to pay my annual $10/household to keep Amtrak running.

I just can't get excited about the little gov departments that take .1% of the federal budget. A billion here and a billion there, pretty soon you are talking about 1% of the whole budget! Woohoo!

To really cut spending, you need to look at where the money is spent.

*Ag subsidies
*Medical costs
*Social security (I'm not for throwing it out. But it will be necessary to cut benefits or raise the retirement age a couple years, as even Howard Dean was saying just a few years ago.)
* Debt service (Republican politicians don't give a damn about this one, apparently.)

A little down the food chain:

I did enjoy the kabuki dance where NASA announced a 100B Mars initiative then graciously gave it up a couple weeks later, and pronounced it a major budget cut.

posted by: mac on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

If you rely on the 'experts' in industry, you end up with the wolves guarding the henhouse. That's what was happening until Teddy Roosevelt started trust-busting. Any real reform is going to require input from industry, Congress and public watchdog groups equally, or else more smoke will be blown.

posted by: Rafael Nieto on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

Proposed budget modifications here.

(With the help of National Budget Simulator).

"Things have been in the hands of conservative ideologues for the past 11 years, and look where they've taken us."

Conservative ideologues? Where? All I've seen are "compassionate conservatives", which seems to mean "leftist Republicans". If we ever see real conservative ideologues in positions of power, things will look a lot different.

"People do need to get angry, though, for any of this to happen. Not angry in the Kos fashion that calls people a bunch of names, but that kind of cold hard anger that looks for alternatives the the messed up system we have now. That happened in 1994. Could happen in 2006."

That seems to be our best hope overall.

"Amtrak is inefficient, true. But to eliminate it means to eliminate long distance passenger rail from the entire country. "

No, it means to have long distance passenger rail run by private operators. The whole thing is not just going to disappear.

posted by: Ken on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

Donít forget that Colonel Jessep's speech was penned by (West Wing creator) Aaron Sorkin, who obviously DOES consider most conservative dogma to be grotesque and incomprehensible.

posted by: Jay Zilber on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

This notion of "privatizing" Amtrak is sheer fantasy. It's been tried before and failed miserably. Almost every country with a passenger rail system has it government-subsidized (Europe, Japan, India etc.)-- the nature of the beast makes it very tough to turn more than a paper-thin profit unless, of course, one's into freight (which of course *is* where the railroad firms make their money).

For that matter, all transportation systems in the US are subsidized to a degree. Airlines have been getting de facto subsidies for decades (in addition to the more recent bailouts) for understandable reasons, and the auto industry gets subsidies in the form of taxpayer-funded highways and infrastructure projects. Those subsidies are just less obvious than the ones seen with Amtrak. Privatization works in most cases but it's not a magic wand for everything (health care is another example)-- you have to look at these case-by-case.

The point is, there are decent reasons to support decent rail travel in the US-- among them, reducing the number of cars in the road (and usage of gasoline) and thus facilitating travel between major cities. Just as there are hidden costs associated with other forms of transportation, there are hidden savings with having a decent, relatively low-cost rail system.

This argument is a bit moot anyway since it would be political suicide for the GOP to cut out Amtrak. Lots of loyally Republican Red-Staters and Blue-Staters alike depend on Amtrak or its affiliates to commute between cities for their small businesses (indeed a big sector of the economy has risen up around the Amtrak routes), and they'd drop the GOP like a bad habit if the Republicans were stupid enough to scuttle Amtrak. In case you haven't noticed, the most intense and vigorous opposition to cutting Amtrak hasn't been coming from the Dems-- it's been emerging from Republicans like Trent Lott, Mike Castle and Sherwood Boehlert. If the Repubs are truly moronic enough to cut Amtrak, they can kiss their political control in Washington goodbye in a hurry. Syrupy paeans to the free market don't mean a whole lot to pissed-off people who've lost an efficient transportation lifeline essential for their jobs.

posted by: Redrum on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

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