FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
The priority problem
The shutdown drama has given Americans an eye-opening look at our massive government’s inability to prioritize. If you take the apologists for President Obama and his Shutdown Theater performances at face value, the Administration assigns extra manpower to keep people out of national parks and memorial sites… and also has plenty of warm bodies available to facilitate an immigration rally on the National Mall. Great: the four-trillion-dollar government that can’t handle its duties to the existing populace – can’t even launch a website correctly, despite years of preparation and over a billion dollars spent – wants to invite another thirty, forty, or fifty million people in.
Another recurring feature of Shutdown Theater involves closing profitable operations, from military athletic events to restaurants and hotels. In other words, the government responds to a fiscal crisis by destroying revenue. Brilliant!
Of course, you shouldn’t take any of these apologists seriously. Shutdown Theater is a pure expression of spite and malice towards the disobedient American people, a calculated effort to make them suffer. One Park Service employee grumbled, “We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can.” Well, Big Government excels at that. It’s just about the only thing it consistently does better than the private sector. (Which is not always a bad thing. We are fortunate to have a gallant military that can make life very difficult for America’s enemies.)
On the other hand, prioritizing is what Big Government stinks the worst at. The political game is largely about convincing favored constituencies with opposing interests that they’re all at the top of the politician’s mind, simultaneously. Everybody is Number One with a bullet! Rest assured that you are the apple of Senator Panderbear’s eye, for as long as he continues speaking to you.
Big Government is presented to people as the absence of responsibility, opportunity costs, and trade-offs. Everything is “free,” or at least paid for by people of uncertain identity and fabulous wealth. President Obama sporadically declares that economic growth and job creation are his highest concerns, but he clearly and demonstrably has numerous interests that rank higher. He would never even rhetorically agree to a policy that improved overall American prosperity but made “income inequality” worse, for example. (Instead, he implements policies that retard growth and ostensibly close the income gap… but in reality, “income equality” is worse than ever after five years of his reign.) ObamaCare was implemented despite highly accurate warnings that it would raise the cost of labor and hurt full-time employment – not really a difficult prediction to make, since it offers hard, cold incentives to cut full-time hours. The Keystone XL pipeline has been held hostage to madcap environmentalism, while the global-warming neurosis is clearly more important to the President and most of his party than economic growth.
On and on the list goes. Forget what a politician says, because they always sing hosannas to growth and job creation. Look at what they do.
And look at what the government does when its money-no-object ways are threatened. Most of our current and upcoming Washington headaches can be boiled down to an inability… no, an outright refusal… to set priorities. That’s what deficit spending is all about. Uncle Sam’s income stream has virtually no relationship to his expenses. New programs require no sacrifice from the beneficiaries of existing programs; the Dependency Class is never pitted against itself. Instead, they’re pitted against taxpayers, who become their mortal enemies by resisting a deficit spending agenda that will inevitably harden into irresistible demands for higher taxes in the future. Proposals carefully cooked to appear somewhat deficit-neutral in the Congressional Budget Office’s ten-year forecast window explode into geysers of debt in the out years… and before you know it, you’ve got someone like Barack Obama explaining that we have no choice to raise the debt limit or pay higher taxes, because otherwise we’d be like deadbeat diners skipping out on our dinner checks.
Speaking of the “debt ceiling,” all this talk of “default” is nothing more than a weaponized failure to set priorities. Even if we never allowed Uncle Sam to borrow another dollar, he’s got enough income to pay debt service and mandatory entitlements. Freezing the national debt would require the big spenders to make some tough decisions, trimming enough fat from Leviathan’s flanks to immediately wipe out a six or seven hundred billion dollar deficit. In other words, they’d have to cut spending by roughly as much as Barack Obama jacked it up in his first year. Why, that’s impossible!
The big reason they’ll tell you it’s impossible is that all those bales of funny money were used to hire people, putting a human face on the government’s refusal to set priorities. You can’t cut spending a nickel, because that would put this guy and that gal out of work. Naturally, people with highly sympathetic, important jobs are marched out to take the first hit from the spending-cut chainsaw. You’ll never see the Third Deputy Assistant Undersecretary to the Acting Assistant Chief Director for Undersigning in the Barricade Procurement Division of the Department of Paperwork written off in belt-tightening budget proposal. No, it’s always soldiers, cops, firefighters, teachers… and soon, thanks to ObamaCare, doctors.
The federal government simply stopped preparing budgets four years ago, in defiance of one of those “settled laws of the land” we hear so much about, because even that minimal exercise in establishing a list of priorities was too much for the Democrats. It’s not as if a plan to spend $3.5 trillion while collecting $2.5 trillion in revenue was much of a “budget” anyway, not by the standards a private businessman would understand (and by “understand” I mean “comply with, if he wants to stay out of jail.”)
The whole thing is a scam, perpetrated on the American people year after year. We aren’t educated about the opportunity costs of compulsive government programs. We don’t equally share the tax burden of the government’s agenda. We are told that not even the most badly malfunctioning or useless appendage of the central State can be dissolved, which is another way of refusing to set priorities – we cannot decide that any given chunk of our individual liberty is more important than the government power it was sacrificed to nourish. Every bit of machinery packed into the super-State over the past century must be kept running, even when it’s absurdly obsolete or counter-productive. The system can only get bigger.
The Administration’s conduct during the shutdown – all this talk of “essential” and “non-essential” expenditures – should make weary taxpayers eager to see what the system would look like if we reset all spending to zero and then authorized only what we deemed truly essential. But we’re not allowed to look at things that way. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was livid at the notion of House Republicans “picking and choosing” which parts of government they wanted to fund. The punch line is that the Constitution explicitly gives them that power – some would call it a duty – but the joke’s on us. These all-or-nothing, “fund everything immediately or face Armageddon” demands are the antithesis of representative government. It’s exactly the sort of abuse the Founders wanted to prevent, when they instituted the separation of powers.
The growing sense that the President is the only politician with real power, the only one that truly matters, is another rejection of the Founders’ wisdom. Desperate Democrats have asserted that Barack Obama’s re-election validated every single item on his agenda, giving him an irresistible “mandate” that should be rubber-stamped by a compliant legislature. Obviously, the Democrats didn’t feel that way when George Bush was President. They were right the first time. The election of a single politician, who over 59 million Americans voted against, ratified every penny of a four-trillion-dollar government until 2016? Not only is the Ruling Class lousy about setting priorities, but it’s growing more pushy about saying the people shouldn’t have any either. We’re supposed to settle for one chance to lodge a strenuous complaint every four years.