CON­SER­VA­TIVE FANTASIES COL­LID­ING WITH RE­AL­ITY

The re­al­ity is that the pro­posed bud­get cuts would have ugly, highly vis­i­ble ef­fects

New Straits Times - - Opinion -

THIS week the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion put out a bud­get blueprint — or more ac­cu­rately, a “bud­get” blueprint. After all, real bud­gets de­tail where the money comes from and where it goes; this procla­ma­tion cov­ers only around a third of fed­eral spend­ing while say­ing noth­ing about rev­enues or pro­jected deficits.

As fis­cal ex­pert Stan Col­len­der put it: “This is not a bud­get. It’s a Trump cam­paign press re­lease mas­querad­ing as a govern­ment doc­u­ment.”

So, what’s the point of the doc­u­ment? The ad­min­is­tra­tion pre­sum­ably hopes that it will dis­tract the pub­lic and the press from the on­go­ing de­ba­cle over health care. But, it prob­a­bly won’t. And, in any case, this pseudo-bud­get em­bod­ies the same com­bi­na­tion of mean-spirit­ed­ness and fis­cal fan­tasy that has turned the Repub­li­can ef­fort to re­place Oba­macare into a train wreck.

Think for a minute about the vi­sion of govern­ment and its role that the right has been ped­dling for decades.

In this vi­sion, much if not most govern­ment spend­ing is a com­plete waste, do­ing no­body any good. The same is true of govern­ment reg­u­la­tions. And to the ex­tent to which spend­ing does help any­one, it’s “Those Peo­ple” — lazy, un­de­serv­ing types who just so hap­pen to be a bit, well, darker than Real Amer­i­cans.

This was the kind of think­ing — or, per­haps, “think­ing” — that un­der­lay Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s prom­ise to re­place Oba­macare with some­thing “far less ex­pen­sive and far bet­ter”. After all, it’s a govern­ment pro­gramme, so he as­sumed that it must be full of waste that a tough leader like him could elim­i­nate.

Strange to say, how­ever, Repub­li­cans turn out to have no ideas about how to make the pro­gramme cheaper other than elim­i­nat­ing health in­sur­ance for 24 mil­lion peo­ple (and mak­ing cov­er­age worse, with higher outof-pocket spend­ing, for those who re­main).

And, ba­si­cally the same story ap­plies at a broader level. Con­sider fed­eral spend­ing as a whole: Out­side de­fence it’s dom­i­nated by So­cial Se­cu­rity, Medi­care and Med­i­caid — all pro­grammes that are cru­cial to tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, many of them the white work­ing-class vot­ers who are the core of Trump sup­port. Fur­ther­more, most other govern­ment spend­ing also serves pur­poses that are pop­u­lar, im­por­tant or (usu­ally) both.

Given this re­al­ity, why are so many peo­ple op­posed to “big govern­ment”?

Many have a dis­torted view of the num­bers. For ex­am­ple, peo­ple have a vastly ex­ag­ger­ated view of how much we spend on for­eign aid. Many also fail to con­nect their per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence with pub­lic pol­icy: Large num­bers of So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care re­cip­i­ents be­lieve that they make no use of any govern­ment so­cial pro­gramme.

Thanks to th­ese mis­per­cep­tions, care­fully nur­tured by rightwing me­dia, politi­cians can of­ten get away with run­ning on prom­ises of dras­tic spend­ing cuts: Many, per­haps most vot­ers don’t see how such cuts would af­fect their lives.

But, what will hap­pen if an­tibig-govern­ment politi­cians find them­selves in a po­si­tion to put their agenda into prac­tice? Vot­ers will quickly get a les­son in what slash­ing spend­ing re­ally means — and they won’t be happy.

That’s ba­si­cally the wall Oba­macare re­peal has just smashed into. And the same thing will hap­pen if this Trump what­ever-it-is turns into an ac­tual bud­get.

Trump him­self gives ev­ery in­di­ca­tion of hav­ing no idea what the fed­eral govern­ment does; his vaguely bud­get-like doc­u­ment isn’t much more than a roughly scrib­bled list of num­bers, with no clear pic­ture of what those num­bers would mean. (In fair­ness, one could have said the same about Paul Ryan’s bud­gets in the past. In fact, I did.)

But, the re­al­ity is that the pro­posed cuts would have ugly, highly vis­i­ble ef­fects. Zero­ing out the Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Block Grant pro­gram may sound good if you have no idea what it does (which Trump surely doesn’t); elim­i­nat­ing Meals on Wheels, an im­me­di­ate con­se­quence, not so much. Nor would coal coun­try, which voted over­whelm­ingly for Trump, like the con­se­quences if he elim­i­nates the Ap­palachian Re­gional Com­mis­sion.

Wait, there’s more. Ef­fec­tively dis­em­bow­el­ing the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency may sound smart if you imag­ine that it’s just a bunch of med­dling bu­reau­crats. But the pub­lic wants stronger, not weaker, en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and would not be pleased to see a sharp de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in air and water qual­ity.

The point is that Trump’s at­tempt to change the sub­ject away from his party’s health care quag­mire isn’t go­ing to work, and not just be­cause this sup­posed bud­get lit­er­ally isn’t worth the pa­per it’s writ­ten on. At a more fun­da­men­tal level, it doesn’t even change the sub­ject.

Repub­li­cans’ bud­get prom­ises, like their health care prom­ises, have been based on an es­sen­tially fraud­u­lent pic­ture of what’s re­ally go­ing on. And now the bill for th­ese lies is com­ing due. NYT

The writer is a No­bel prize win­ner and op-ed colum­nist for the ‘New York Times’. He is also Dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of Eco­nom­ics at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Univer­sity of New York

AP PIC

Repub­li­cans’ bud­get prom­ises, like their health care prom­ises, have been based on an es­sen­tially fraud­u­lent pic­ture of what’s re­ally go­ing on.

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