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The Tea Parties and Spending

Ross Douthat points out the similarity between the Tea Party protests and the anti-Iraq War protests–in a depressing way:

[I]t’s awfully hard to see the Tea Parties doing much to change that reality in the short run; if anything, they’re far more likely to reconfirm the majority in its opinion that American conservatism is increasingly wacky, echo-chamberish, and out-of-touch.

Still, here we are in the sixth year of the Iraq War, and all those anti-war protests, their excesses and stupidities notwithstanding, look a lot more prescient in hindsight than they did (to me, at least) when they were going on. So if you’re inclined to sneer and giggle at the Tea Parties, keep in mind that just because a group of protesters looks ragged, resentful, and naive, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong to be alarmed

And that’s a good point–increasing government spending is alarming. There’s no question about that. The higher deficits being predicted under an Obama Administration should be a cause for concern. But you can’t argue against higher deficits and for cutting taxes at the same time. Real life doesn’t work that way. You can’t simply wish federal revenue into being.

By the same token, you can’t just go around saying we need to “cut spending.” That’s just mindless handwaving. Let’s put this simply. 80% of the budget falls into five categories: Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Defense, Veteran’s Benefits, and Interest on the Debt. EIGHTY PERCENT. So if you don’t tell me what you’re going to be able to feasibly cut in those categories, you are not approaching the problem seriously.

This is especially the case when it comes to defense spending. Let’s face it: you can’t argue for more military spending AND a lower federal budget. If the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world want me to take them seriously on controlling federal spending, they shouldn’t have howled when Bob Gates didn’t increase defense spending this year as much as the rest of the Pentagon wanted him to.

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About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp writes about pretty much everything under the sun, including politics, art, religion, philosophy, sports, music, culture, and science.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Alex, there’s one more point consistent with your larger point that bears mentioning. Even if we cut all of the 20% remaining it doesn’t bring the budget into balance. And any reasonable reading of the budget sees the deficit widening in just a few years time.

    We aren’t going to grow our way out of this problem, either. Ours is a developed economy and none but the rosiest of scenarios imagines growth in the range that would be required for growth to save us.

    Cutting military spending is a tempting target. If we completely eliminated R&D and procurement of new systems and equipment it would only reduce the military budget by about 30%. So don’t look just at the sexy weapons systems for cuts. We need to cut personnel, too, if we’re going to reduce the military budget substantially. That means doing less and I don’t just mean Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I’m not arguing for this. I’m just trying to expose the realities of our budget predicament.

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  2. Tlaloc says:

    And that’s a good point—increasing government spending is alarming. There’s no question about that.

    But I *do* question it. I see no problem with deficit spending during very bad economic times so long as we offset it with surpluses during the good economic times. I don’t think I need to point out that during the relatively good economic times over the last 8 years we didn’t have a surplus.

    The problem is not the amount of money spent by the government, many governments spend a much great proportion of the GDP through the government than we do. The question is “what are we getting for the money?”

    If the answer is “ten more years of missile defense tests that don’t work” then yes the spending is a problem.

    If the answer is “a smart universal health care system” then it’s money damn well spent.

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  3. Let’s put this simply. 80% of the budget falls into five categories: Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Defense, Veteran’s Benefits, and Interest on the Debt. EIGHTY PERCENT.

    Caps makes it double plus true, I guess. So, which of those five do TARP, TARP II, the Obama Stimlus package, and the rumored Son of Stimulus Package fall into? Defense? Social Security? Medicare/Medicaid? Veteran’s Benefits? Interest on th Debt? Well, the last will be affected, but the $1T, $2T, $3T, I lose count on how much TARP, TARP II, the Obama Stimlus package, and the rumored Son of Stimulus Package add up to, but the raw numbers don’t include the additional debt tat will necessarily be being piled on (unless the Fed keeps printing money and then inflation will cure all our ills). And surely you aren’t claiming that the very low end $1T in additional spending isn’t 20% of federal expendituures this year, disregarding all other facets of the referenced 20%.

    Gosh, how did we ever get along until the Federal Government decided it needed 20%, 21%, 22%, 23%, 24%, 25%, 26%, 27%, 28%, and now perhaps 29% of GDP?

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  4. Dave Schuler says:

    so long as we offset it with surpluses during the good economic times

    The evidence of the last 80 years suggests that Congress is incapable of doing that.

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  5. Tlaloc says:

    Cutting military spending is a tempting target. If we completely eliminated R&D and procurement of new systems and equipment it would only reduce the military budget by about 30%. So don’t look just at the sexy weapons systems for cuts. We need to cut personnel, too, if we’re going to reduce the military budget substantially. That means doing less and I don’t just mean Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Personally I’d like to reduce our standing army by about half and the overall budget by a third. Just roughly of course. The last thing I’d cut is R&D though. That’s by far the best spent dollars in the whole DoD budget seeing as how it maintains a high force multiplier and also trickles down to various civilian uses (*ahem* Internet *ahem*). Some of the specific weapons systems that either don’t work (missile defense, osprey) or are mismatched to our needs (anything designed to fight WW3 instead of VIetnam 2) can be cut, but the basic R&D should go on.

    Having a smaller military would help reduce the temptation to use it constantly (seriously, when you average one major war a decade its time to sit back and just chill for a bit).

    All that said I would not start reducing the military head count until after the current economic crisis is over. Besides the best way to handle the matter would be through attrition and reduced recruiting/higher standards rather than drastic actions like early discharges.

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  6. We need to control health care spending. Unless and until you come up with a solution to that, all else is going to get swept away regardless.

    That said, Obama’s tax cuts combined with significant increases in spending — some short-term counter-cyclical, some long-term increases in social spending — are untenable.

    Obama’s approach and budget are ultimately as unworkable as the Conservative alternative of cutting taxes and hoping for the best.

    We’re going to need to get federal revenue back up to at least 19-20% of GDP as it was in the Clinton years. And realistically, given health care trends — even with successful controls — and an aging population, we probably need to think in terms of a 23-24% of GDP target for federal revenue. We lack the political will to do so now, and frankly, I think it may be politically impossible to do so. It would be a 30% increase in our federal tax burden on everyone…. right-wingers are having a fit today over a 10% increase in the top MARGINAL RATE for the top 5% of the country.

    The gap between what we need and what we can accomplish — either in terms of tax increases or spending cuts — is so large that it may not be bridgeable.

    I am beginning to think Rick Perry may be on to something. While the South’s secession in order to maintain slavery was immoral, I think we may now be in a position where the divide between expectations of what the government can and should provide is so large that it imperils both sets of preferences.

    I really don’t want to live in country where there are few government regulations and virtually no safety net. But many people seem to want that approach. Neither side benefits from a back and forth lurching between governing philosophies.

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  7. Tlaloc says:

    The evidence of the last 80 years suggests that Congress is incapable of doing that.

    Left to their own devices, I agree. The temptation to bring home the bacon is too strong. That’s why I’d support a carefully worded balanced budget amendment.

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  8. The evidence of the last 80 years suggests that Congress is incapable of doing that

    That is just not true. We have historically always managed debt pretty well. The only real exceptions are the Reagan/Bush and Bush II years… and now Obama.

    You want to make the case that we can’t manage debt over the past 30 years, then it still isn’t a good argument since it suggests you have to ignore the late 1990s…. but that is absolutely not the historical norm.

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  9. Gosh, how did we ever get along until the Federal Government decided it needed 20%, 21%, 22%, 23%, 24%, 25%, 26%, 27%, 28%, and now perhaps 29% of GDP?

    The “Federal Government”… Yeah… that gosh-darned government elected by the people. How dare they?

    You make it sound like the problem is a bunch of liberal bureaucrats who are secretly determined to impose socialism on an unwilling citizenry rather than the actions of elected representatives.

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  10. Bithead says:

    The “Federal Government”… Yeah… that gosh-darned government elected by the people. How dare they?

    And the virtue of having been elected makes them immune to the charge of running roughshod over unwilling citizenry? Your trust that once elected pols do as they promise seems a bit out of touch with the reality of the thing.

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  11. Dave Schuler says:

    Personally I’d like to reduce our standing army by about half and the overall budget by a third. Just roughly of course. The last thing I’d cut is R&D though. That’s by far the best spent dollars in the whole DoD budget seeing as how it maintains a high force multiplier and also trickles down to various civilian uses (*ahem* Internet *ahem*).

    That’s my view, too, Tlaloc. But, then, I’d also reduce our military commitments to fit.

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  12. And the virtue of having been elected makes them immune to the charge of running roughshod over unwilling citizenry?

    Um… yes? It is called democracy. Just because you didn’t vote for it, doesn’t mean that programs like Social Security and Medicare aren’t popular. And just because I didn’t vote for tax cuts, doesn’t make them unpopular.

    There is NO evidence that our government is unresponsive. Indeed, it is too responsive. People want more goodies and less taxes and our “leaders” give it to us.

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  13. Dave Schuler says:

    Bernard, it is true. Consider this graph. We’ve run substantial deficits under Republican presidents and Democratic presidents, under Democratic Congresses and Republican Congresses, in all combinations.

    The Clinton surplus was a combination of prudent stewardship, a relatively conservative Democratic president and a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, and dumb luck. The boom of the late 90’s was mostly the result of 20 years of investment in technology finally bearing fruit. We’re unlikely to see its like again. At least not in my lifetime.

    Can you point to an instance of pro-cyclical spending reduction? I can’t think of a one.

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  14. Michael says:

    And the virtue of having been elected makes them immune to the charge of running roughshod over unwilling citizenry?

    The fact that they were elected, and continue to be re-elected, means that the citizenry is quite willing.

    Your trust that once elected pols do as they promise seems a bit out of touch with the reality of the thing.

    If the citizenry doesn’t like how they used their term in office, they can kick them out when it’s over.

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  15. Bithead says:

    Um… yes? It is called democracy. Just because you didn’t vote for it, doesn’t mean that programs like Social Security and Medicare aren’t popular. And just because I didn’t vote for tax cuts, doesn’t make them unpopular

    Perhaps. Then again, the bailouts and the amount of spending currently going on, seems to not have the support of the people. Thus the disconnect I mention.

    The fact that they were elected, and continue to be re-elected, means that the citizenry is quite willing.

    I’m not so convinced. I point, for example to the small number of voters at each election, usualy under 50% turnouts. seems clear part of the issue is not having a better choice, and a certain level of detachment from the process.

    If the citizenry doesn’t like how they used their term in office, they can kick them out when it’s over.

    If we can take yesterday as any indication, that will happen. Alas, however, thanks to some very serious MSM PR work…(I would call it shilling), we’re likely to see the same clowns in office as we have now, in four years. The outcome of the next couple elections will tell, but they’ll depend on being able to maintain the level of involvement seen yesterday.

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  16. Bernard, it is true. Consider this graph.

    It is not true, as I explained here.

    From my analysis:

    “since 1950, net interest payments as a percentage of GDP decreased or stayed the same in 39 years and only increased in 19. In short, our fiscal burden measured in terms of actual money diverted to pay for servicing the debt only increased 33% of the time. In short, our fiscal posture usually gets better not worse.”

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  17. Then again, the bailouts and the amount of spending currently going on, seems to not have the support of the people.

    That is technically true, but confuses the issue. When the stimulus package was passed, it was quite popular — about twice as many people favored it as opposed. It is NOW unpopular — supported by about 43% and opposed by 52% according to latest Rasmussen poll I saw.

    When Congress voted on the stimulus, it was not bucking public opinion, but tracking it.

    But that said, either due to second thoughts at deficits, or anger at AIG traders, or people becoming convincing by conservative arguments, it is now an increasingly unpopular stance. Which is why, we’re unlikely to see any more major stimulus or bailout packages passed.

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  18. Dave Schuler says:

    Still waiting for your example of pro-cyclic spending reduction (which was the point). The point that Tlaloc made was that occasional deficits are okay if you’re willing to run surpluses occasionally to counteract them. Congress isn’t.

    The Keynesian model is counter-cyclic fiscal stimulus balanced by pro-cyclic surpluses. We aren’t doing that.

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  19. Michael says:

    I’m not so convinced. I point, for example to the small number of voters at each election, usualy under 50% turnouts. seems clear part of the issue is not having a better choice, and a certain level of detachment from the process.

    Casting no vote doesn’t mean you’re not represented, it just means you don’t have an opinion either way, thus yours is a neutral vote. So, if you take those that vote for, against, and neutral, and they collectively favor keeping a politician in office, then that politician has the consent of his constituents.

    If we can take yesterday as any indication, that will happen.

    What happened yesterday that would indicate that?

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  20. Tlaloc says:

    That’s my view, too, Tlaloc. But, then, I’d also reduce our military commitments to fit.

    Absolutely. Can I get a kumbayah? Our problem is not that our military is too small but that it is being asked to do too much (fight two foreign wars/occupations while simultaneously holding bases in 20+ countries). I’d like to see a military tailored towards domestic defense with a nominal force available for truly international missions.

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  21. pro-cyclic spending reduction

    Outlays as a percentage of GDP declined from the 1953 to 1957 between the Korean war peak and the recession of 57-58. Outlays as a percentage of GDP declined from the end of the 1961 recession to the uptick in the Vietnam war in 1967. They declined from the end of the 1974-75 recession until the uptick in defense spending in 1979 and the recession of 1981. They declined 1983 to 1989 again coinciding with the end of a recession, though trending up even before the 1991 recession. They declined as a percentage of GDP from after the 1991 recession straight through until the 2002 recession.

    Basically, absent wars, federal spending tends to decline as a percentage of GDP between recessions.

    Those are pro-cyclical spending reductions. They happen all the time. They are the norm.

    The problem is that military increase, social spending increases during recessions, and tax cuts, are all political ratchets. So often spending drops slower than it initially increased, and revenue rises slower than it was originally cut.

    [Source: Federal Budget tables]

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  22. [...] the same lines as Douthat, and echoing a question I raised yesterday, Alex Knapp believes that the movement’s biggest mistake is not figuring out what it’s fo… [I]ncreasing government spending is alarming. There’s no question about that. The higher deficits [...]

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  23. Brett says:

    Military spending is tricky. I don’t want to cut R & D either (we need those programs, and that technological and industrial base to make them for future conflicts), which means that we’d have to cut back hard on both Operations and Personnel. That means slashing military personnel numbers (I’m assuming that this would fall the heaviest on the Army, since the Navy and Air Force aren’t particularly large), and drawing down overseas operations (i.e. get out of Iraq, and quickly minimize our exposure in Afghanistan).

    Of course, that’s a double-edged sword; there may be a situation in which you want or need to invade, but can’t because of the personnel restrictions (you’d probably want to keep a large Army Reserve just in case the equivalent of World War 2 breaks out). You’d also probably lose some institutional knowledge and capability as you slowly lose officers with actual experience.

    We could push back Social Security to ages 70-75, but you’d get a lot of invalids having to work until they’re 72 along with healthy elderly. Moreover, age discrimination is pretty rampant, so that’s another barrier.

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  24. anjin-san says:

    Perhaps. Then again, the bailouts and the amount of spending currently going on, seems to not have the support of the people.

    Interesting. When Mr. Bush was President, and he and the Iraq war has support numbers that suggested they were about as popular as fungus, the right was telling us that we are are a representative republic, not a democracy, and that true leaders lead by doing what they think is right, not by analyzing polling data. (like that bastard, Clinton did!)

    Apparently, something fundamental has changed.

    Oh, yes. They lost the election. Well, so much for those core principals. The expedience of the moment now rules on the right…

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  25. C Stanley says:

    That is technically true, but confuses the issue. When the stimulus package was passed, it was quite popular — about twice as many people favored it as opposed. It is NOW unpopular — supported by about 43% and opposed by 52% according to latest Rasmussen poll I saw.

    When Congress voted on the stimulus, it was not bucking public opinion, but tracking it.

    But that said, either due to second thoughts at deficits, or anger at AIG traders, or people becoming convincing by conservative arguments, it is now an increasingly unpopular stance. Which is why, we’re unlikely to see any more major stimulus or bailout packages passed.

    And I’m sure it was just a lucky coincidence that the stimulus bill was passed under a strict deadline, before the legislators had a chance to even read it, and long before taxpayers had a chance to let it sink in.

    Surely the Democrats didn’t purposely push it through quickly, and that couldn’t have been why they loaded it up with longer term products instead of true short term stimulus?

    Nah, couldn’t be.

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  26. C Stanley says:

    That is technically true, but confuses the issue. When the stimulus package was passed, it was quite popular — about twice as many people favored it as opposed. It is NOW unpopular — supported by about 43% and opposed by 52% according to latest Rasmussen poll I saw.

    When Congress voted on the stimulus, it was not bucking public opinion, but tracking it.

    But that said, either due to second thoughts at deficits, or anger at AIG traders, or people becoming convincing by conservative arguments, it is now an increasingly unpopular stance. Which is why, we’re unlikely to see any more major stimulus or bailout packages passed.

    And I’m sure it was just a lucky coincidence that the stimulus bill was passed under a strict deadline, before the legislators had a chance to even read it, and long before taxpayers had a chance to let it sink in.

    Surely the Democrats didn’t purposely push it through quickly, and that couldn’t have been why they loaded it up with longer term projects instead of true short term stimulus?

    Nah, couldn’t be.

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  27. Tlaloc says:

    there may be a situation in which you want or need to invade,

    I’m having a harder and harder time thinking of such a contingency. Think about our actual invasions.

    Various Indian wars. Not really seeing any more native genocide in our near future.

    Mexican-American war. Hopefully we aren’t about to go annex a big swath of either Mexico or Canada.

    Spanish-American war, Philippine American war. Pure empire building. Hopefully we can break the habit.

    World War 1 and 2. We just don’t see this kind of large scale military action any more. Aerial dominance makes foot slogging warfare just too hard to maintain.

    Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. The new types of wars. Voluntary intervention in internal matters of foreign states and neo-colonialism.

    So we have 5 general categories in precedent. Three hopefully won’t even be considered. One seems outmoded by the pace of technology, and the last is no big loss if we choose to forgo.

    I can certainly see scenarios where we need to take punitive action against a nation (up to and including a nuclear retaliation). That can be conducted by naval and air forces with minimal foot sloggers. I can see needing forces to counterdict piracy and the like. What I just can’t see is a real *need* (need, not want) for a big standing army capable of invasion.

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  28. Surely the Democrats didn’t purposely push it through quickly, and that couldn’t have been why they loaded it up with longer term projects instead of true short term stimulus?

    Nah, couldn’t be.

    Could be. Sure. I don’t recall being particularly gung ho about seeing it passed fast. Maybe if Republicans hadn’t been so busy complaining about volcano monitoring and proposing idiotic measures like a pure tax cut bill and/or a spending freeze we could have had a serious debate. But you can’t have a serious debate without two serious parties, and the Republicans are a bunch of clowns.

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  29. mannning says:

    Oh Bernard, do you believe that the Democrats are not premier clowns? Have you listened to Pelosi, Reid, Murtha, Schumer, Feinstein, and the rest very closely recently?

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  30. Tlaloc says:

    Oh Bernard, do you believe that the Democrats are not premier clowns? Have you listened to Pelosi, Reid, Murtha, Schumer, Feinstein, and the rest very closely recently?

    They do plenty of stupid things, but the dems have brought ideas to the table. The reps are stuck looping the exact same things they agitated for 30 years ago. “Tax cuts” is not an economic platform, much less a budget, and yet the republicans have tried to pass off the slogan as both. “Unitary executive” and “punch the hippies” are not governing philosophies no matter how much the right might like them. “drill baby drill” is not an energy agenda.

    So, yeah, both sides are clowns, but one group of clowns is actually trying things and doing a credible job of getting their policies enacted. The other group… just isn’t.

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  31. Bithead says:

    Interesting. When Mr. Bush was President, and he and the Iraq war has support numbers that suggested they were about as popular as fungus, the right was telling us that we are are a representative republic, not a democracy, and that true leaders lead by doing what they think is right, not by analyzing polling data. (like that bastard, Clinton did!)

    You’re comparing apples and bowling balls. I submit to you that by virtue of the Constitution, there’s a major difference in the level of automomy between defense matters and what amounts to social spending matters.

    And in any event, does that mean since you support Obama doing what he thinks is right, and the will of the people be damned, that you were wrong complaining when Bush did it?

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  32. anjin-san says:

    You’re comparing apples and bowling balls. I submit to you that by virtue of the Constitution, there’s a major difference in the level of automomy between defense matters and what amounts to social spending matters.

    When Obama took office, Bush had left our economy on the verge of collapse. Some fairly strong medicine was called for. Or do you not think that having a viable economy is a national security issue?

    since you support Obama doing what he thinks is right, and the will of the people be damned

    Please show where I said that in someplace other than your imagination..

    When asked how that assessment comports with recent polls that show about two-thirds of Americans say the fight in Iraq is not worth it, Cheney replied, “So?”

    Please show us where you condemned this remark. Failing that, why not come clean and admit that your only agenda is attacking the President and abandon this fiction that you actually have principals or give a crap about the good of the country?

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  33. [...] like to know what the protestors’ alternative is. As my colleague at OTB, Alex Knapp, pointed out a few days ago, 80% of federal spending is on Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, defense, [...]

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