Please, Not More “Stimulus”!

Tomorrow President Obama gives his State of the Union speech.  Advance stories indicate that the speech will focus on the economy — no surprise there! — and that the President will call for more government “investment” in science, education, and innovation.

“Investment” is, of course, just a code word for more government spending.  The only reason the word “stimulus” isn’t used any more is that it has acquired deadly connotations for American voters, who recognize that the initial “stimulus” package was a leaden failure that grossly increased the federal debt without producing much in exchange. Doesn’t “investment” in “education” and “science” sound an awful lot like using our tax dollars to pay for more government jobs?  And as for “investment” in “innovation,” is there really anyone out there who thinks that members of Congress or government bureaucrats could distinguish true innovation from a cracked pumpkin?

We may find out tomorrow that the President has a great plan — but until then, color me skeptical.  Whenever I hear the argument that the way out of our ongoing recessionary doldrums is still more government spending, I have the same horrified and anguished reaction as the poor, lost soul Richard depicted on the wonderful bit of “kid art” accompanying this posting.

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Federal Pay Freeze

President Obama has called for a two-year freeze on the salaries of some federal workers.  If the proposal is approved by Congress, it is estimated that it will save $5 billion during that two-year period.  Unless a freeze is approved, federal workers would automatically get a pay increase (!) as a result of a 1990 law.

Everett Dirksen

Republicans have said that the President is just hopping on board a proposal that Republicans made months ago, and others are criticizing the pay freeze as a drop in the bucket when compared to the budget deficit.  I don’t care who gets credit, I’m just glad to see that the President is focused on deficit reduction as a worthy goal, and I hope Congress agrees.  And as for the size of the savings, I’m hoping that the pay freeze proposal will be the first of a long series of deficit reduction initiatives that will include things like actually cutting the head count in the federal workforce, eliminating unnecessary agencies and departments, lopping off programs that we can no longer afford, eliminating ill-advised subsidies, limiting the size of congressional staffs, restricting congressional travel, and many, many others.  (I’m simply mentioning these as examples; I think there are lots of places where cutting should occur.)

When it comes to deficit reduction, I’m a big proponent of the wise words attributed to former Senator Everett Dirksen:  “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money.”  We shouldn’t throw up our hands because no one bit of belt-tightening will result in a balanced budget.  Instead, the focus should be on taking a number of spending reduction steps that will cumulatively have that ultimate desired effect.

On A Possible Republican Sweep, And The Political Lessons To Be Learned From The Tale Of Brave Sir Robin

If the polls are to be believed — and that remains an open question in my mind — Republicans are likely to win the House of Representatives and have a long shot chance of assuming control of the Senate.  If that occurs, voters will find out whether the Republicans mean what they have been saying during the campaign or whether they will instead be like Brave Sir Robin.

Remember Brave Sir Robin from Monty Python and the Holy Grail?  He was the publicity-hungry knight who desperately wanted to join in the search for the Grail.  He left on his quest accompanied by a minstrel and a cadre of musicians who sang constantly about his adventures.  And yet, when the going got tough and the giant three-headed knight awaited, Brave Sir Robin made no attempt to fight.  As his minstrel sang:

When danger reared its ugly head
He bravely turned his tail and fled
Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about
And gallantly he chickened out
Bravely talking to his feet
He beat a very brave retreat
Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin

I’m tired of politicians who talk a good game but don’t deliver.  I’m hoping that, if Republicans in fact sweep to victory this November, they will indeed slash spending, reduce the deficit, and restore fiscal sanity to our federal government.  If they instead act like Brave Sir Robin, I think that will be it for me and the Republicans.  I’ll have to start looking for Sir Lancelot elsewhere.

Low Standards

The White House has issued a report stating that the stimulus spending, so far, has occurred on time and under budget, with fewer claims of outright fraud and abuse than some people expected.  The report also argues that the stimulus spending has been an economic success story.

There is no need to comment on the latter point, because the economic statistics and the common experiences of average Americans tell the tale.  What I find humorous about this latest report is the suggestion that we should be grateful that the process of spending hundreds of billions of dollars was “relatively free” of claims of outright fraud.  Well, thank goodness!  We’ve managed to avoid rampant criminal behavior!  Should that really be the standard by which we judge the effectiveness of a federal spending spree that has contributed mightily to enormous budget deficits and a sickening rise in our national debt?

Fool Me Once, Shame On You, Fool Me Twice, Shame On Me

The 2010 mid-term election is less than three months away.  Polls indicate that the President’s approval rating is sinking, but the President won’t be on the ballot this year.  Instead, we will be voting for Senators and Representatives — and polls indicate that the public is very dissatisfied with Congress.   My brother-in-law recently declared that he has decided to vote against whoever has been in office for the last two years, because he is so fed up with how things are going.  I think that view is shared by many here in central Ohio.

What does this viewpoint mean for the Republican and Democratic parties?  Because there are more Democrats than Republicans in Congress right now, any anti-incumbent trend necessarily will work in favor of Republicans.  But Republicans shouldn’t kid themselves that such voters are passionate advocates of the Republican Party.  For people (like me) who are concerned about government spending and government debt, the memories of fiscal irresponsibility when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House are too fresh to be forgotten.  If enough Republicans are elected for that party to assume control of Congress, they won’t be drawing on any reservoir of trust in their first months in office.  If Republicans win and go back to their irresponsible ways, they will be the subject of even more fury than is now being directed at Democrats.

Polling data, confrontations at town hall meetings, and the results of interim elections show that many voters do not support more massive deficit spending, “stimulus” legislation and unending government bailouts.  Nevertheless, Democrats continue to pursue that failed agenda.  The recent approval of a bill to spend billions more in borrowed money to bail out laid-off teachers and overspending state governments confirms that Democrats in Congress aren’t listening to the public, or are listening and just don’t care because they think they know better than voters do.  Does anyone doubt that, if Democrats are returned to office, they will continue to follow their high-spending agenda?  If voters are uncomfortable with the skyrocketing federal debt and the concept of trillion-dollar deficits stretching well into the future, why would they want to vote for members of a party who seem oblivious to that concern?

At bottom, voters like me want our elected representatives to roll up their sleeves, tackle the deficit and spending problems head-on, and make some hard choices.  Democrats have shown they will not do so.  Republicans are the only current alternative.  But because both parties have performed so dismally when they were recently in control, there is enormous mistrust and frustration with both parties.  This is something Republicans really need to understand — if they win come November they had better deliver, or there will be hell to pay.

A Brief Response

We’ve had some good back-and-forth discussions on the blog lately about political issues, from UJ and some commenters, including my friend Doug.  I like a good, civil discussion as much as the next person; in fact, I wish we had more discussion in this country, not less.  That is why I think the internet and blogs are such terrific developments.  We’d all be better served if more Americans aired their views and respectfully noted their disagreements.

I don’t know where the fellow UJ identified got his information about what Republicans would do if they achieve a majority in Congress.  I certainly don’t support the impeachment of the President and haven’t heard anyone talking about that topic.  I can’t think what he has done that would justify impeachment.  The fact that I (and others) disagree with his approach to the federal budget obviously isn’t an impeachable offense.  I also don’t think anyone is eager to shut down the federal government.  That said, however, I do think there are many people, including Republicans, who think we would be better served by significantly cutting spending and repealing the “health care reform” legislation that was enacted earlier this year.

In my view, the biggest issue we face is our federal debt.  Today the Congressional Budget Office released an interesting and very troubling report about the level of our debt and the likely effects of the debt if we don’t do something about it — now.  I expect that we all agree that something needs to be done about the deficit and the federal debt.  The question is, what?

The CBO report outlines the two obvious options — raise revenues, decrease spending, or some combination of the two.  I have no objection to raising revenue as part of the solution, but I think that personal and corporate income taxes are high enough already.  The top brackets already pay about one-third of their income as federal income taxes; they also pay federal Social Security taxes, state income taxes, property taxes, local income taxes, sales taxes, and other taxes on top of that.  Is it really fair to ask the small business owners and high wage earners to pay even more?

So, how can you raise revenue?  I think user fees are one option; where the federal government provides a service — be it clearing and patrolling inland waterways, operating national parks, insuring bank accounts, or any one of countless other services — it is not unfair to ask the people who benefit specifically from that service to pay for it.  I would be in favor of increasing user fees to better cover the cost of providing those services.  I also think that the federal government needs to do a better job of charging for its assets.  When the rights to use broadband frequencies are sold, for example, let’s make sure that we get the fair market price.  I don’t expect such actions to solve the budget problems, but I do think that every little bit helps.

I think it is obvious that cutting spending is going to have to be the principal means of achieving fiscal discipline.  I previously wrote about the budget for NHTSA and how I thought it could be cut.  It is all a matter of making tough choices in view of our current predicament.  Should the federal government really be funding seat belt awareness and drunk driving prevention programs at this time when spending discipline is so desperately needed?  I’m sure that there are many other small agencies and federal programs that could be cut, too — and that includes programs in the Defense Department.  No federal spending should be off-limits. 

One significant objection I have to the Obama Administration is that it has tried to talk about the need to restrain spending and be more fiscally prudent but has done nothing to pursue that goal.  When I decide how to vote in November, and in 2012, one of the key decision points for me will be to choose the candidate who I think will be most willing to make the hard choices.  I don’t care whether they are Republican, Democrat, or something else — it is time to elect people who will roll up their sleeves and tackle the issue of our government spending.