The political elites employ a fictitious approach to government spending cuts, because they don’t really want cuts.
You can see this in the media response to a recent report about the 2012 presidential campaign. The “bi-partisan” Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget issued a report discussing how the GOP candidates’ proposals would affect the national debt. In short, for three of the four candidates, their plans would dramatically increase the national debt. Only one candidate has a plan that reduces the debt. As the graph shows (click it to see in full size), national debt would dramatically increase under the plans proposed by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, while only Ron Paul would reduce it.
This became a significant story in the news, but did not get the attention it truly deserves. The biggest difference in the candidates is that Ron Paul has proposed substantial and specific government spending cuts.
So how was the spending issue addressed by the media and the political elites?
Consider the Wall Street Journal‘s take:
Alice Rivlin, a committee board member and former head of the Congressional Budget Office, said it was unrealistic to expect candidates to be too specific about how they would restrain spending growth, but she worried candidates are being specific about tax-cut proposals that would worsen the deficit.
“It’s too much, at this stage in the campaign, to ask campaigns to give you a finished proposal with all the details,” she said. “But it’s not too much to ask them to be fiscally responsible.”
Think of the questions a real journalist might have asked Ms. Alice Rivlin:
Why is it unrealistic?
At what stage of the campaign should they give you a finished, detailed proposal?
How can they be fiscally responsible without providing details?
This media/political elite attitude enables candidates to be vague about government spending cuts. Today I had the joy of reading Rick Santorum’s Economic Freedom Agenda in the Journal, which has this beauty of a paragraph:
I’ll propose spending cuts of $5 trillion over five years, including cuts for the remainder of fiscal year 2013. I’ll propose budgets that spend less money each year than prior years, and I’ll reduce the nondefense-related federal work force by at least 10%, without replacing them with private contractors.
“I’ll” is usually a contraction meaning “I will.” Santorum formed a presidential exploratory committee in April of 2011, some ten months ago. He will propose spending cuts? He’s had four years in the House, followed by twelve years in the Senate, and four years now as a lobbyist. By now he should have a pretty good idea of what spending he’d cut. When will he tell us what cuts he’d make?
Also interesting is the questionable math. He says he’ll cut $5 trillion over 5 years. Then he says each budget will spend less than prior years. In the world most of us live in, cutting $5 trillion over 5 years would mean cutting about a trillion a year, so it should be obvious that each budget would spend less than prior years.
But maybe what he really means is the Washington insider version of spending cuts, which means a reduction in future increases. This relies on another fiction of the media and the political elites – baseline budgeting.
So when Santorum says he’ll cut $5 trillion, does he mean reducing spending by $5 trillion, or reducing future increases by $5 trillion? Don’t worry folks. Alice Rivlin reassures the media and the candidates that they don’t have to be specific.
Ms. Rivlin’s choice, President Obama, hasn’t proposed any significant spending cuts three years into his first term. So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.
If you’re reading this, and you’ve gotten this far, you should demand that any candidates be specific about their spending plans. And tell the media you want them to ask specific questions. Don’t let Alice Rivlin and the other DC insiders hide the truth from us.