Free Markets, Free People

David Brooks: austerity, “death panels” and spending exemptions

David Brooks helps demonstrate the problem we face in doing anything meaningful about the fiscal mess our government has gotten itself in.  To give him his due, he is trying, at some level, to address the problems facing the country. But he manages to end up putting himself in precisely the position which seems  prevalent today among those not really serious about doing what is necessary to put the fiscal house in order (but like to pretend they are)  – that is “we want budget cuts but don’t touch my favorite programs”.

Let me give you an example from his column today entitled “The New Normal”.

He begins by acknowledging that there is going to be (needs to be?) a whole lot of deficit cutting over the next few years.  And, his first principle of austerity, as he calls it, is that lawmakers must, as he inartfully but correctly puts it, “make everybody hurt”.  He’s right – no exemptions.  Every program, department, echelon, you name it, associated with government (yeah, that means you public sector unions) are going to have to sacrifice something.  Fine to that point.  When you’re looking at 1.3 trillion in a single year deficit, everyone does have to “hurt” if you hold any hope of eliminating it.

However, in this column  he launches into his second principle of austerity and loses me immediately.

A second austerity principle is this: Trim from the old to invest in the young. We should adjust pension promises and reduce the amount of money spent on health care during the last months of life so we can preserve programs for those who are growing and learning the most.

This “principle”  is based in a very nasty premise that “we” are in control of all the money “spent on health care” during the last months and should use that power to help balance the budget (and the fact is, with Medicare, that premise is true).  In other words, “we” will decide to pull the plug on the treatment for oldsters in favor of treatment/”investment” in youngsters.  Not the old folks themselves, mind you.  They’ll have no say in it. He’s talking about the collective “we”.  But don’t you dare say “death panels” you hear me?  And note, he immediately violates his first principle of making “everyone hurt” by claiming that if we throw the oldsters under the bus, we can “preserve programs” for the young.  Where’s the cut in spending when we’re “preserving”?

Oh, it’s not “spending” … we’ll call it “investing”, shall we?

Brooks then expands his “for the children” campaign with this bit of nonsense where he takes a shot at House GOP members:

In Washington, the Republicans who designed the cuts for this fiscal year seemed to have done no serious policy evaluation. They excused the elderly and directed cuts at anything else they could easily reach. Under their budget, financing for early-childhood programs would fall off a cliff. Tens of thousands of kids, maybe hundreds of thousands, would have their slots eliminated midyear.

You’d think Brooks, someone the NYT pays to be informed about how government works, would understand that the legislation he questions isn’t a budget, but a continuing resolution (CR) to fund government in the current fiscal year.   That’s not where you make “serious policy evaluations”.  You do that in budget legislation, something which the Democrats in the House failed to pass last year.   The government has been running on a series of CRs all year.  That doesn’t remove the crying need for cuts in spending, but the only spending under their control in a CR is discretionary spending.  And that’s where they’re cutting.

Brooks prefers to ignore those facts in favor of the emotional argument that they’re going after children in favor of old folks.

What is instructive about the Brooks argument is this is precisely the type arguments that you’re going to see from now on.  Arguments like the one Brooks puts forward here are going to begin with statements like “we must make cuts” and then spend the entire rest of the time arguing against making them.   And 90% of those arguments are going to be based in emotion, not facts or sound reasoning.

Mr. “Make Everyone Hurt” then advances his third austerity principle:

Which leads to the third austerity principle: Never cut without an evaluation process. Before legislators and governors chop a section of the budget, they should make a list of all the relevant programs. They should grade each option and then start paying for them from the top down.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the point, but it is again inconsistent with his first principle, isn’t it?  If everyone has to “hurt”, then something must come from every spending point – to include children’s programs and education.  What Brooks wants is some sort of arbitrary “evaluation” which will – wait for it – justify or rationalize exempting certain programs, policies, departments from spending cuts.

Any guess as to which programs he wants exempted?  Certainly not those effecting older Americans.

Brooks isn’t really serious about cutting spending.   Like many politicians and pundits, he mouths the words and makes the point about all of us sacrificing something, but he really doesn’t mean it. When pressed, he falls right into the “cut everything else but don’t cut my favorite program” group in which you find much of the populace today.  That’s not “shared sacrifice”.

Its hard to take someone seriously who doesn’t seriously address the fact that we have massive debt, massive deficits staring us in the face, a huge new entitlement program on the books and and conclude there’s an urgent need to cut spending in all areas, period.   Brooks should have stopped with his first principle, if he actually wanted to be taken serious.  That is the “new normal”.



26 Responses to David Brooks: austerity, “death panels” and spending exemptions

  • The country is still deeply unserious about fixing the problem.  We basically need a few states to go bankrupt or maybe the US credit rating getting downgraded before more people than just the Tea Party wake up

    • That’s because the liberals are convinced we can tap the ‘rich’ to solve the problem.
      They’re just trying to show us how gloomy a picture it will be if we fail to do that.
      “don’t tax him, don’t tax me, tax that rich guy behind the tree!”

    • Yesterday the “progressive” sites where alive with a Moody’s report that the $61 billion cuts by the Repulicians would cost 700,000 jobs over 2 year.  But nobody bothered to read down a little further where it said the budget was still $400 billion out of balance from any position where we might ever bring th economy under control.
      Of course, the “progressive” solution was tax the upper income brackets. 
      A quick figuring reveals that to do that we would probably have to more than double the current 33% rate, which would render an aconomy that would have all of us watching foreign sports teams and watching movies out of Balliwood.
      “Cricket anyone” ?

  • From the previous post:

    US Budget –    $3.5T

    US Revenue –  $2.2T

    US Deficit –     $1.3T (59% of budget)

    The scary thing is that even if we cut EVERYTHING by 10% (usually considered a pretty significant amount for most budgets), we’d STILL have a about a $1 TRILLION DEFICIT, i.e. close to 50% of the entire budget.  Even to get back to the “unsustainable”* deficits of the Bush years (about $400B / year, as I recall), we’d have to cut about $900B from the current budget, or about 25%.  In order to have a balanced budget (which would still leave us with a whopping huge debt), we’d have to cut about $1.3T, or about 40%.

    This isn’t a question of “everybody has to hurt”: this is a question of “somebody has to die”.

    And the elephant in the room?  Many states, cities and counties are in the same boat: so underwater that they it isn’t politically feasible to cut enough to save themselves.


    (*) I seem to recall democrats, including The Dear Golfer, using this term back in the bad ol’ days when the eeeeevil Bush was running the country.  This is not to say that they were wrong (Bush was a fool on fiscal issues), but the fact that they MORE than doubled down exposes their hypocrisy.

    • Yes, whole departments will have to go, and entitlements will be slashed.
      The Dems can try to raise taxes, but that will only work politically if its done with tons of cutting, too, which they can’t do because they need the unions and the entitlements.

  • “Come on Johhny get the 12 guage and the dog while I get grandpa – we have to go and do something that grandpa might not like, but it’s for YOU Johnny, we’re doing this for you.  Oh, uh, when I get to be as old as grandpa, you won’t need to do this for me though, just sayin ahead of time.”

  • I have to echo Shark, these people are not serious. Have they forgotten that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step? We can’t even get the clowns in Washington to take that first step. (I would even settle for a baby step at this point!)
    And to steal a quote from Stephen Covey, maybe we can “begin with the end in mind”.
    I’m beginning to suspect that the Republican leadership has taken counsel of their fears. There are many battles ahead and seeking common ground at the line of departure deprives them of the momentum they earned coming out of the 2010 mid term election. I’m not necessarily arguing for Armageddon (a shut down) but if they have any hope of being re-elected in 2012 they ought to be on the offense today. Not only are there 70 some odd new conservative faces in the House, I would argue that the tea party ethos is pretty pervasive around the nation and in no small part accounts for their ability to re-take the House.
    As you can see in Wisconsin, the other side is fighting like this is Stalingrad. The Republicans in the House are acting like this is an OPFOR exercise at the NTC. I know how I’d fight them, but then I haven’t been co-opted by the system. I do know one or two things. The White House is caught between foreign affairs, Wisconsin et al, fighting to save Obamacare and trying to get a continuing resolution. This is the perfect time to attack, when your enemy is overloaded with problems and not enough resources to put out all the fires. The Republicans have a very simple problem to solve. Start cutting now and force the Democrats to fight on ground not of their choosing. I would make and publicize a list of all the egregious failures and corporate subsidies, no matter what the dollars and hang that around the necks of the Democrats. What’s needed now is progress, no matter how small. Success breeds success. Timidity won’t get them anything but positive reviews from the press.

    •  I would argue that the tea party ethos is pretty pervasive around the nation and in no small part accounts for their ability to re-take the House

      >>>>  Yes.   If it can’t be done now, it won’t be done ever.

  • Thankfully, more people in the U.S. own ferrets than read Mr. Brooks.

  • Which leads to the third austerity principle: Never cut without an evaluation process.

    This passes as intelligent commentary????
    “Never cross the street without looking both ways.”
    Plus, NOBODY will ever cut anything without an interest group throwing themselves in front of it.

    • Yeah, they want to evaluate when the propose to cut government – but evaluate the result of passing a bill no one has read and is 2000 pages long?   “ENGINE ROOM!  – FLANK SPEED!”

  • Off topic, but Wish-consin could get interesting in the next few hours.
    Fox is saying some of the Fleebaggers are getting homesick.

  • How ’bout this as a spring-board…
    We are going to 1990 spending in our budget.
    That’s all you say.
    Leave it hanging there.
    Now, I don’t suggest that is an actual, factual route to the final product, but it would be a hellofa point of departure.
    What we call “anchoring” in negotiations.

  • Across the board cuts are not the way to go. First decide what the fed govt should be involved in. Then eliminate, not cut 20% but eliminate, any activity that the fed govt should not be involved in. For example, don’t cut 10% from the Dept of Education, it will just grow back again. Eliminate the Dept of Education completely, tear out the roots, burn the branches, crush any reamining acorns. When that is done, it can never regrow. Go back to a strict reading of interstate commerce and eliminate any fed agency that meddles in intrastate commerce. Don’t cut 10%, eliminate.

  • A second austerity principle is this: “It’s for the children”

    That sums it up I think, but I don’t exactly buy in.  Early-childhood programs are useless when they abadon the children later.  For instance, there is a school district near me that pumps out very well educated “middle schoolers” but then has an awful high school program that lets all those good efforts go to waste.

  • House passes the CR w/ $2 billion in cuts.

    In two weeks, we get to slice another $2 billion.

    It’s a drop in the ocean, it’s baby steps, but at least it’s a small start.

  • ANy actual backwards motion, even minuscule, is better than a “Reduction in the rate of growth”

  • Yesterday, I downloaded the GAO report on waste and duplication in the federal government and read the first half.  As a guy who spent twenty years in the military and another twenty in private sector management, there were some interesting data presented.  The impression I’m getting is that we need a complete, bottoms up reorganization of the executive branch.

    • Arch, thirty years ago I went from a job at a small start-up magazine, where we counted paperclips along with pennies, to a firm where I was going to manage a project under a contract with HUD. That required me to go to DC every week or so. That was where I watched the feds in action. My description of it is still the same: It was as if they took bushels of taxpayer money down to the basement of the HUD HQ at L’Enfant Plaza, threw the money into large vats, where it was liquified, and then poured it down enormous drains. It was all done in a great hurry, with great arrogance and much self-aggrandizement among the multi-layered bureaucrats.

      • Things haven’t gotten any better.  The Federal Acquisition Regulations drive up the cost of everything the government buys.  For example, the requirement for certified cost and pricing data probably adds 10-15% to every item they procure.  These data are a guarantee that errors in pricing are eaten by the supplier and their senior management can be criminally responsible.  The government also buys far more data than they can use.  I managed a sole source product line, the intellectual property for which we owned, yet the government bought reprocurement data knowing that they could never use it.  Finally, I told them I objected as a taxpayer and refused to bid level 3 data, instead offering to put these data into an escrow account in the unlikely event I could not meet their production.  Their resident government inspectors where worthless.
        I find it very frustrating pulling the government out of holes they have dug themselves.
        One contract I won was a cost-plus fixed fee engineering job.  The contracting officer told me he wanted to (1) make a specific change to our antenna system, (2) guarantee it would solve the low altitude multipath problem and (3) accept a firm fixed price of $1.25M.  I told him he could pick any two of the three.  He made it cost plus.  His data guy handed me a 100 page “common contractor data error” list and told me that any error I made would come out of profit.  I turned to the government program manager and said, “You need a lot more money.  This data guy want every data item to be perfect.”  I won again.
        L’Enfant Plaza is near the FAA Headquarters.  One year at the Korn-Ferry reception during the Paris Airshow, a recruiter approached me and asked if I would consider an assistant Administrator position.  I refused, saying the had Tim McVeigh parked his truck at 800 Independence Avenue instead of the Murah Federal building, he would be in Congress rather than dead.  The FAA is another government regulatory agency where the first word out of their employee’s mouth is automatically “No!”
        Don’t get me started.

  • The GAO Report is a very damning assessment that starts with defense.  For example, the DoD has 130,000 people working in military health care.  This number includes doctors, nurses, medics, scientists, educators, lab techs, pharmicists and administrative personnel.  The services run their own hospitals and take care of their active duty troops and military dependents. 

    The force this organization services are 1.46 million active duty members and about 1M reserves and national guard when on active duty.  It also includes their dependents.  Assume 2 million active duty with 2 dependents each, that is a patient pool of 6 million healthy young people.  Families have the option of purchasing very reasonable insurance under TriCare which is much better and less costly than commercial coverage.

    A second data point was that they see 200,000 patients per day.  Last month I had my annual physical, and he had an interesting sign in the waiting room.  It read, “35 Patients per Day.”  By Dr Wilson’s standard, it would take about 6,000 doctors to service 200,000 patients.  What do the other 124,000 people do? 

    Department of Defense actually runs a Medical School.  Why?  Aren’t there other med schools at places like johns Hopkins, Harvard, or the University of Whatever?   The Fort Hood was a graduate.  We don’t need a med school.

    Medical records for active duty and reservists should have already been digitized, reducing administrative effort by half.

    They operate hundreds of hospitals on military bases.  Why?  If little Johnny has a cold, why can’t he be seen at Glendale Community Hospital rather than Luke Air Base Hospital?  Half of those 200,000 patients could easily be offloaded into real hospitals.  The DoD could compensate local communities with Federal impact funds as they already do with school systems.  In bases overseas where dependents are permitted, some expanded medical care would be needed.

    They practice military specialties such as flight, dive and trauma medicine.  Here the military has a point.  Every squadron has a flight surgeon assigned.  Every unit with an underwater mission would have a doctor who specialized in that discipline.  Trauma medicine is different.  If an infantry unit is at their home base, trauma surgeons and medics would be under used.  Why not rotate them to hospitals in inner cities where their skills are critically needed?

    What if the balloon goes up and we expand the military to 8 million?  Keep a list of our doctors and call them up.  Don’t give them rank, they generally don’t like it.  Call them “doctor” and pay them what they would net after paying for an office and buying malpractice insurance.

    • “The GAO Report is a very damning assessment that starts with defense.”

      And for Democrats, that is also where it ends.

      Military medical facilities, like restaurants, must have enough staff to handle peak loads. For restaurants this means being able to handle meal-time rushes . Military hospitals must be able to handle expected numbers of combat casualties. . Once the action starts it is too late to hire and train staff.  The difference is that if there is not enough staff in a military hospital people die. Even in civilian hospitals you can see technicians, etc. sitting on their hands waiting for patients.

      Like the rest of the military, when not engaged in combat the medical personnel train and try to look busy. Just because they are not shooting at anybody doesn’t mean they are useless mouths to feed.

      • Tim:

        Great point.  In industry they call it a make-buy decision. Do you want to invest in the capability to do something in house or buy it from someone who does that full time?  Obviously we need trauma, flight and dive medicine.  My suggestion was to actually keep “surplus” trauma units – doctors and EMT units – in inner city hospitals where they could retain their proficiency.

        I have literally been in the military medical system all my life.  My father was an infantry platoon leader who landed on Omaha beach when I was four months old and killed in action when I was thirteen months.  Mom remarried a career naval officer.  We lived on Guam in 1948 and many other naval bases from Boston to Pearl.  At 18, I entered the Naval Academy.  At 43, I retired. 

        My beef has never been maintaining the unique military medical skill; it’s been the HMO kind of stuff.  Why should the military compete with HMOs?  They shouldn’t.  Their care is substandard and expensive. 

  • FREE WAR!!! This is no free lunch but this whole echo chamber believes in FREE WAR!!!  I’m also sure this whole echo chamber supported pursuit of the war and absolutely refuses to think that maybe, maybe paying for the war requires increase tax collections.