The United States’ Federal Budget is where politics, theory and rhetoric collide with harsh reality. In its 2,866 pages is encoded an immensely complex set of priorities, commitments and compromises which together will keep the United States operating for an entire year. The 2004 budget is especially interesting (relatively) because it was designed by a strongly ideological White House who has the unusual advantage of controlling Congress. This means that the approved budget is a much less about the compromises and more about the priorities of the Republican party. For that reason, this year’s budget is immensely instructive. OnePeople obviously has nothing better to do, so we’re going to walk you through this year’s budget, highlighting areas of interest that you could easily have skimmed over in your favorite periodicals. Since we’re almost as lazy as you are, we haven’t actually read the budget — we’re relying on a number of different sources, which we’ll refer you to when the opportunity presents itself.
We’ll begin the series with some high-level analysis, turning our perceptive gaze towards the summary prose that precedes the tables and line-items of the budget proper. As it does each year, the Administration uses this prose to explain, justify and illustrate its own fiscal policy. It makes for an awfully big target.The Philosophy
The Bush Administration, without surprising anyone, is an enormous fan of the power of free markets. It believes that private industry is inherently more efficient than the public sector. Since you all diligently followed our recommendation to watch the Controlling Heights series on PBS, you understand that this philosophy has gained a great deal of ground in the last decade or two, as socialist and mixed economies began to fail under their own bureaucratic weight.
The question of how much control a government should have over markets was once framed as a choice between Marx-inspired command economies and free markets. Alongside communism and the command economies’ focus on the general welfare, laissez-faire capitalism was forced to make concessions. Rather than let markets run amok, as they did before the Great Depression, capitalist systems had to ensure that markets were stable and predictable. Without these controls, markets can fluctuate wildly, leaving the poorest consumers in shambles. To prevent this, markets were moderated by government intervention. Governments followed the rules laid out by John Maynard Keynes. Keynesian economics dictate that a government should spend against the economy: when things are going well, the government should leave well enough alone. When economies begin to fail, though, the government should step in and begin spending to stimulate the economy. The Keynesian model worked phenomenally well until the mid-1970s. Starting with the Oil Crisis and then pernicious “stagflation,” the Carter Administration proved incapable of spending its way out of an economic death-spiral. Economists began to have serious doubts about the universal effectiveness of Keynesian policy.
It was in these dangerous years in which the current Administration’s economic principles were forged. Once Reagan and Thatcher were elected to office, privatization and the miracle of laissez-faire capitalism seemed the only answer. The current Bush Administration, led by the first President with a Master’s degree in Business Administration, are stalwart adherents to this radical pro-market philosophy.
Spending What You Don’t Have
This philosophy, which is marked by a deep mistrust of government spending, has had a direct effect on this year’s federal budget. On the assumption that money in the budget is as good as wasted, and that the money is more wisely spent by the taxpayers directly, the Administration was able to secure $350 billion in tax cuts, on top of previous round of cuts two years ago. This is less than the $750 billion initially requested, but still significant. These cuts have not found their way into the budget, though, which means that the government will have to borrow money to make up the difference. This means more of the dreaded deficit spending that plagued the country in the years following the Reagan Administration. When asked about the ill-effects of the resulting debt load, the Bush Administration responds that the cut will create an economic stimulus from the newly tax-free consumers, which will result in more tax revenue, which will recover some of this shortfall. This argument has created miles of commentary, and we won’t engage it here.
[This is where we start unabashedly cribbing from Thomas Frank’s outstanding piece in the June 2003 issue of Harper’s. — ed.]
Suffice to say, this isn’t addressed in the budget’s prose. Instead, the deficit is blamed on the speculative bubble of the 1990s, the previous Administration’s watch. There’s no mention of the two massive tax cut packages. Instead, we’re told that the budget would be in deficit because of the recession anyway. We’re not told that the deficit is worse because of the tax cuts, though that’s demonstrably true.
Social Security and Medicare
Instead, under the heading “The Real Fiscal Danger“, we’re told that the nation will be bankrupted by Social Security and Medicare real soon now. This is not a new issue, but now the Administration has a solution in keeping with its radical economic liberalism: privatization. Instead of leaving the trust money with the government, taxpayers should be able to invest the money directly in the stock market. On its face, the idea sounds moderately dangerous: government-mandating savings are being left to the vagaries of an increasingly deregulated market… one that just suffered a massive wave of scandals, to boot. The technical question of how to insert trillions of dollars into the stock market without giving the exchanges an embolism is still unresolved. Nevertheless, the Administration wants you to know how near the danger looms: “the combined shortfall in Social Security and Medicare of nearly $18 trillion was about five times as a large as today’s publicly held national debt.” This is wildly misleading, though — the same document claims that Social Security will actually have a surplus for the next 14 years. Medicare is certainly in trouble, but more on that soon. Suffice to say: the $18 trillion number actually comes from a 75-year projection, which is absurd on its face. Earlier in the budget, we’re told that projections past five years are impractically speculative, and should be ignored. This works nicely when you’re trying to obscure the effects of a massive tax cut in recession, but makes the immediacy of the Social Security problem very difficult to illustrate, so perhaps we can cut the authors some slack.
As for Medicare, the system is certainly in trouble, but this has nothing to do with government inefficiency. Instead, this has to do with the skyrocketing cost of medical care. The silence from the Administration on this issue is deafening.
The Government That Hates Itself
We also find a anti-government vitriol. In “Governing With Accountability“, we’re told that federal agencies are not beholden to the laws of the market and are therefore inefficient and/or incompetent. they have “not managed themselves well enough to know whether they had the right people with the right skills to do the work.” “Pay and performance are generally unrelated.” This “Washington mentality” has “wasted billions of dollars.”
This analysis seems so silly that it’s hard to believe the Administration isn’t a laughingstock. The irony is that the policy’s flaws are invoked by the Administration itself when it explains the Defense Department budget. The thinking is that the Defense Department cannot be held to free-market standards, since it is not meant to make money. It is, by design, inefficient and redundant. That’s what makes the military so effective at what it does. To apply free-market principles to military spending is comparing apples to oranges. The military is the only government activity that is given this exception, though.
We feel some hyperbole coming on, so we’ll leave the analysis for the moment. Keep an eye out for out next piece, which will be significantly lighter on the plagiarism of Mr. Frank, and instead turn our eye to the spending on the Department of Agriculture.