Why do politicians and pundits lie about government spending?

The criticism of conservatives below should not be taken as any sort of endorsement of more liberal policies. It goes without saying that after the first part of this argument, things like bailing out the auto industry and health-care reform are extravagances that cost way too much money.

1. You heard me. Lie. The problem is huge. First, we need to dismiss the notion that Social Security & Medicare/Medicaid can be paid for if we cut other programs. Take a look at the federal budget for FY 2009: add up Social Security spending (20%) and Medicare/Medicaid (19%) and that’s nearly 40% of the budget gone already before the government does things like maintain the world’s best military force (23%) and rebuild at least two other countries. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were cheaper to do both of those – maintain the world’s best military and rebuild a number of other countries – than to pay entitlements that overwhelmingly go to one interest group.

Now none of this is to say we shouldn’t pay for the sick and the elderly. Of course we should, but anyone telling you that Social Security and Medicare aren’t the elephant in the room, that one can magically cut “pork” and “foreign aid” and get a budget that’s under control is out of their mind. Even before the bailouts and health-care reform and all that nonsense this was not a sustainable course; there was going to have to be reform of some sort, and take a guess at what happened the last time a politician proposed entitlement reform seriously.

2. Now of course, the way things work now brings us to a second enormous problem. Politics now is “get a mob and get angry.” If people in the Tea Parties scream a lot and elect people like Rand Paul, that should fix everything, right? It isn’t like a quick glance at the federal budget shows that stopping bailouts still doesn’t prevent entitlements from going broke, right? And if unions keep asking for money that doesn’t exist and calling the people who say no to that “Hitler,” well, isn’t that just the nature of politics? Doesn’t voter anger solve all problems by sending a signal?

Well, no – that’s just the thing, it isn’t the nature of politics. At some point, politics involves something like deliberation: people can’t talk past each other forever. And I’m not sure where the failure lies right now, with us or with the politicians and pundits who indulge the anger. I’m tempted to blame all of us for creating a situation where people feel they have to lie to us to be heard. Back when Bush was President, everything and anything was made by us into a scandal, no matter how innocuous it was. There’s a lot of that going on with the current President, but I want to focus on something that might be more insidious.

Last night I caught a rerun of Hannity briefly, and saw this guy who helped create a film called “Generation Zero,” purportedly about all the debt we’re accumulating, say this:

BANNON: Here’s the problem. If you look at, you know, this massive off-balance-sheet liability we have with Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, $100 trillion, that’s not even the worst entitlement program.

What we have today, the worst entitlement program is a political class that think they have a credit card that just continue to run up these deficits. And it’s federal spending. It’s the size of the deficit and the size of the debt.

I say purportedly because you can already see how they engage in counterfactuals to fear-monger: $100 trillion is how much you would need for the government to live off interest to pay out entitlements indefinitely. In other words, they made up an example of something that could never happen in order to get a huge number that scares everyone to death. Then, they say that Social Security and Medicaid and Medicare aren’t even the biggest problem (!).

That’s just an amazing amount of dishonesty packed into so few words: the general lashing out at the “debt” and “deficit” is being used to say “whatever liberals want is wrong, unless they want Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid, because that’s what will appeal to older voters who show up in off-year elections.”

It gets worse. Bannon is not an elected representative. But Tom Coburn is a Senator. From February of this year:

The impending collapse of our entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — could cause tax rates to double if we do nothing. If we try to borrow our way out of insolvency, we could face a collapse in the value of the dollar, skyrocketing interest rates, hyperinflation or all of the above.

This is exaggerated: “impending collapse” is very different from “not sustainable.” And notice that I’m not yelling about taxes doubling or hyperinflation or the like – the most important thing when facing a crisis is to keep calm and figure out what to do. So why is Coburn indulging in overheated rhetoric instead of simply telling you what I just told you, the numbers from the actual federal budget? It might have something to do with wanting to say this:

In our system, angry mobs — motivated citizens — are the lifeblood of democracy. The threat to liberty comes from angry elites — elected leaders who ignore the obvious will of the people until they are voted out of office.

The problem in Washington is simple: The future of our republic is at risk not because we disagree but because we agree intensely about spending our way into oblivion. We are broke, but not broken. The American people have the power to put our nation on a sustainable course and end the spending supermajority that threatens our future.

See? Angry mobs are the “lifeblood” of democracy, not people who sacrifice their lives for others or any crap like that. So if the Tea Party yells about “pork” now and forever, and doesn’t know anything about how much the government actually spends and on what it actually spends, that’s perfectly OK.

What’s bugging me is that I do realize some spin is necessary. I do realize some interest groups can’t be alienated. But this is ridiculous – my conservative and libertarian allies are yelling about spending without actually discussing what we actually spend. They’re making all of us dumber in order to win elections, and some very suspect candidates are weaseling their way to the top because no one knows anything.

We have very hard choices ahead of us, even if every liberal extravagance like health-care reform were repealed (and no, in case you’re wondering: we can’t afford health-care reform, not even close). All of these issues are just the beginning for anyone who is serious about politics: solving the budget doesn’t solve anything. To take one example of an issue we grossly neglect: it may be the case that the reason crime is down is that we throw too many people in prison; it is estimated that one-third of prison inmates at the least are non-violent offenders. Try telling God on Judgment Day that you worked to make America a more just country with that statistic in mind, and that’s not even the worst stat: look up the percentage of people with AIDS among the prison population, and ask yourself whether anyone violent or non-violent should be subject to that. Again, this is just the beginning, and I’m stunned at how we prioritize issues, and how those who should know better let us prioritize issues.

1 Comment

  1. I’m really happy you put those last two links in this post. There are many huge and far-reaching issues that we (society) completely ignore… and we’ll continue to ignore them unfortunately :(

    Crime and punishment being an awesome example- we’ve been scared witless by news and television and each other until everybody is at least a potential criminal, we have dire need for a huge corrections system and we should always trust it completely. We can’t back off spending and we certainly can’t decriminalize. That would lead to pure anarchy.

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