Humans often assume that big changes happen so slowly we’ll have plenty of time to adjust to the new reality before we have to live in it. President Obama certainly seems to think this is true. The United States will “always will be a triple-A country,” he said shortly after Standard & Poor’s dropped the U.S. government’s credit rating.
But the opposite is often true. Big changes happen so quickly we end up looking back and wondering, “How did that happen?”
Remember smoking? Watch an episode of Mad Men and you’re amazed at the idea that people lit up in their offices. But less than 25 years ago, I can remember visiting my father’s office, and almost everyone there smoked. There was an ashtray on almost every desk.
If you’d told me that -- within a generation -- smoking would be virtually illegal in virtually every public space, I’d have laughed. There was no way I could have imagined that all those smokers would allow you to ban smoking in offices, restaurants, aircraft and hotels. And yet it happened.
We have to hope there’s something similar going on in Washington these days: a change from business as usual that can usher in a new era of spending restraint. But we’re not there yet.
Consider the debt reduction deal hammered out recently after weeks of acrimonious debate. “The actual cut to the 2012 budget, the only budget over which this Congress has control, is $21 billion out of total expenditures of $3.7 trillion – a pittance,” writes Fareed Zakaria in TIME magazine, damning the deal with faint praise.
Yet Zakaria draws the wrong lesson. “Democrats now feel they need to mirror the Tea Party’s tactics and are becoming unyielding on any cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare,” he writes.
“Are becoming unyielding”? That assumes they’ve ever allowed cuts to entitlement programs. In reality, neither party has allowed any cuts to any entitlement programs.
When Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White House a few years ago, they added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, a step that massively increased the program’s spending. During 2010, a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House expanded the Part D expansion, making the benefit even more expensive for future taxpayers.