When Working on Deficit Reduction, Let's Actually Reduce the Deficit

The draft report from the Bowles/Simpson Deficit Commission has some good ideas in it, and it has some that are less good, and there's plenty of analysis on both to go around.

Instead of rehashing everything others have said, I'll focus on one aspect that needs to be left out of both this commission and future reports: "example" cuts. These cuts tend to have four main characteristics: they are spending cuts (show me a report with example tax increases), they focus on the federal government itself, they are in the discretionary budget, and they are arbitrary. They are problematic for a number of reasons:

  1. They don't actually reduce deficits in a meaningful way - The only example cuts that exceed one billion dollars in savings in 2015 are eliminating 250,000 contractors ($18.4 billion), cutting the federal workforce by 10 percent ($13.2 billion), and freezing federal non defense compensation for three years ($15.1 billion). (More on these in point 2.) The seven other points are ticky-tack. The meat of our structural deficit problems lies in growing defense and entitlement costs - namely Medicare, which means healthcare - and a shortage of revenue.
  2. They unnecessarily demonize the federal government and weaken it, a self reinforcing cycle - While there is valid disagreement about the appropriate role of the federal government, once a role is agreed upon, partisans of all stripes can agree that role should be properly supported and properly monitored for efficiency; no more, no less. Making the government more efficient is of course a good idea. Reducing the role of contractors is a great idea, but it bears pointing out that the role of contractors rose in part because of cuts to the actual federal workforce. Arbitrarily cutting staff and resources to set an example sets the wrong example - I'd prefer a government that sets an example of competently achieving the job its citizens have asked. When it doesn't, people lose faith in government, something I trust the public servants on the deficit commission want to avoid.
  3. They cheapen the hard decisions that need to be made to actually reduce the deficit - One of the example cuts is "reducing unnecessary printing expenses." It's hard to find anyone in the country who doesn't agree that unnecessary printing is unnecessary. Unfortunately, deficit reduction isn't that easy - try getting everyone to agree about unnecessary weapons systems, Medicare benefits, or taxes. That's why they're called hard choices. When we cheapen them, we allow others to advance ideas veiled as deficit reduction that don't actually reduce the deficit.

The beauty of this draft is that it does take a stab at hard choices, and its writers are to be commended for that. I look forward to an end product whose only examples are of meaningful deficit reduction.