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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Whose Folly? Whose Goodies?

Washington is a place renowned for folly. But insiders and outsiders define “folly” differently. For denizens of D.C., folly means cutting the federal budget.

In his column, “Alzheimer Research Cuts Show Folly of Sequestration,” Bloomberg’s Al Hunt recently opined on folly in the capital: “With the sequestration-enforced cuts at the National Institutes of Health,” he argues, “research to find a cure or better treatment is slowing.”

Alzheimer’s is an awful disease. Two of my close relatives suffered from it. Who wouldn’t want to eradicate it? But the desire to eliminate Alzheimer’s says nothing about how much the government should spend on research.

How effective would an additional dollar spent in this way be? Hunt offers no criteria for government research spending. Rather, he cites one senator, Susan Collins, who wants to quadruple outlays to $2 billion annually.

If there are no criteria, why stop there? Why not double expenditures again? And again? Is there any limit to what should be spent?

To answer such questions, one has to compare the benefits of Alzheimer’s research to work on prostate and breast cancer, heart disease, and other medical killers. Moreover, what’s the relative value of Alzheimer’s research compared to other government spending—such as combating accidental deaths? Finally, one has to weigh medical research against the benefits of private spending, including spending on medical products and procedures.

Maybe Alzheimer’s research would come out on top. Maybe not. Given all the stupid things on which the government spends money, there isn’t a lot of competition. Even Hunt admitted that “for most federal programs, huge increases in spending would cause reckless waste and inefficiency. NIH is an exception.”

Even if so, it is not enough to argue that there is a pressing need. It also is necessary to make the case that meeting that need is more important than alternative uses of money. And in Washington, even if you find someone who will admit most federal spending is wasteful, it’s always someone else’s spending.

Still, if one believes current funding levels constitute the bare minimum necessary, then how about the “folly” of the sequester?

It turns out to have had no discernible impact. After declaring that “the long-term consequences, in more than a few cases, are ominous,” Hunt admitted: “Alzheimer’s research, pre-sequestration, was slated for a healthy increase this year. By moving a few discretionary funds, the NIH has avoided cutbacks.”

Dwell on that sentence a moment. Despite the ravages of the recent drive for “austerity,” Alzheimer’s research is actually getting more money than before. And despite the purported ravages of this year’s sequester, that increase was unaffected.

So much for the “folly” of the sequester.

There is good reason to criticize the sequester as a ham-handed tactic. The federal government imposed an arbitrary across-the-board cut on a portion of the budget mid-year. It’s a dumb policy.

But even dumber is Washington’s inability to cut wasteful programs. In a $3.6 trillion budget, Congress and the president couldn’t figure out how to trim $85 billion. That’s 2.3 percent. Imagine telling your family that you’ve been borrowing 30 to 40 percent of your total annual spending, so you’ve got to make radical cutbacks. You’re reducing outlays by … 2.3 percent.

Of course, there have been some recent media stories suggesting that everything is fine—that the fiscal problem is solved.

If only.

Uncle Sam ran $5 trillion in deficits during President Obama’s first four years in office. The national debt approaches $17 trillion. Even folks on the Left had trouble denying that there was at least an itty-bitty budget problem. And maybe, just maybe, there would have to be a reduction or two in a program or two.

But then the Congressional Budget Office announced that the deficit was falling. Problem solved! No worries! We can go back to binge spending!

Precisely what was the good news?  Because of higher than expected revenues, the deficit this year is expected to be “only” $642 billion.

That’s progress. But that’s still 50 percent higher than the pre-financial crisis record, set in 2008 by George W. Bush. Moreover, the reduction is only temporary. CBO figured the deficit will decline through 2015 and then start back up again. By 2023 the annual deficit will be $1 trillion again. Total red ink over the decade will be $7 trillion.

Even if Washington keeps finding a little extra unexpected cash, its debts will keep piling up. Younger workers will pay the resulting interest for the rest of their lives.

However, the numbers are likely to worsen. If spending discipline—an oxymoron when it comes to Congress—loosens, outlays will race higher than expected. Moreover, there are more bailouts coming for agencies like the Federal Housing Administration and the Post Office, not to mention Obamacare, in which subsidies will increase to match rising health-insurance premiums.

Then there are Social Security and Medicare expenditures, which will grow dramatically in coming years as the baby boomers retire. The Congressional Budget Office noted, “Under current law, the aging of the population, the rising costs of health care, and the scheduled expansion in federal subsidies for health insurance will substantially boost federal spending on Social Security and the government’s major health care programs, relative to GDP, for the next 10 years and for decades thereafter.”

But don’t worry. The problem is not spending. It is the sequester. Thus say the Washington elite that got us into the present mess.


  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.