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”.