Apr 21 2010

Jim Is Us

I was pretty hard on Jim back on Monday, so I wanted to add that I don’t really blame him; he’s just doing the best with the situation he’s found himself in and responding to the incentives he’s been offered.  He doesn’t know what would happen if we went back to a constitutional system, where responsibility starts at the local level and the federal government does as little as possible instead of everything we deem important.  Maybe he personally would take it in the shorts.  It’s hard to blame him for wanting to keep the system that’s making him comfortable.

The thing is, we’re all Jim.  Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about.  The Economist recently did a poll where they asked people whether they thought the government should raise taxes or cut spending to decrease the deficit.  62% said cut spending and only 5% said raise taxes.  (I guess the other 33% think we should just keep partying until the cops shut us down.)  That’s heartening; government spending is too high and raising taxes is only a short term solution since it would depress the economy further.

But then they asked people what spending they would cut.  The results are below.  Keep in mind that people could pick as many items as they liked, so it’s not like they would have picked more if they could.

Economist Poll

So 2/3 of people think we need to cut spending, but when asked what to cut, all they can come up with is foreign aid.  Don’t get me wrong—I’d cut foreign aid to $0 in a heartbeat—but that’s less than 1% of the budget.  That’s like trying to avoid personal bankruptcy by cutting back on your chewing gum budget by one pack a week.  We still need to find a trillion or so to cut, but once you get past foreign aid, there’s no program that more than 30% of the people are willing to touch.  (Note: we’re just talking about cuts here, not elimination.)  And apparently 12% of the people are hoping there’s some really expensive program we can cut that’s not even on this list.

We’ve all got government programs we’re partial to.  Like 94% of the people polled, I personally don’t want to see cuts in veterans’ benefits.  I’m partial to space exploration, so though I know the federal government has no constitutional business running a space program, I figure as long as they’re throwing money at everything else, I wish they’d throw 50 billion at putting people on Mars.   And so it goes.  Three hundred million people all have things they’d like Uncle Sam to do (or least don’t object to him doing), and pretty soon he’s doing everything except wiping our butts.

For all the Tea Parties, and the president’s low approval numbers, and people starting to show up at town halls and yell at their congressman; the fact is that most people are still fine with things as they are when you get down to the details.  People would like to have a smaller government and balanced budget in theory, but not if it means we have to cut back on anything except payments to people who live in other countries and talk funny.

And it’s hard to blame us.  Every dollar that’s spent by government goes into someone’s pocket.  (Even much of foreign aid goes to Americans at home or abroad who administer it.) When people say, “Buy fewer bombs,” in practice that means, “Pay fewer people to build bombs.”  Spending less on mass transit means less money for bus drivers and the people who sweep the subways.  Even the “waste and bureaucracy” that every administration promises to clean up goes to pay actual people to be wasteful and bureaucratic.  Every dollar of spending that we cut means someone gets a pay cut or a pink slip.  If the government cuts a trillion dollars out of the budget—and doesn’t cut taxes to match, because remember we’re trying to balance the budget here—a whole lot of people have to lose their jobs.

That’s simply the reality of the situation we’ve borrowed and spent ourselves into.   I don’t like that any more than Jim does, but I don’t like borrowing the difference and passing the problem to the next generation either.

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