If the national fiscal crisis has accomplished nothing else, it has finally restored the good name of Ebenezer Scrooge. Frugal government, traditionally a contradiction in terms, has become a national ideal -- as well as a national necessity. At last, Americans and their leaders recognize the need to justify every dollar spent.
Congress and the president recently agreed on a debt ceiling deal that consists entirely of cuts in outlays, not tax increases. A supercommittee of Congress will try to come up with additional ways to reduce the deficit, and failure will trigger large, automatic budget cuts amounting to $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
Even President Obama, who has labored heroically to acquaint the public with the meaning of the word "trillion," has changed course. His budget director is asking all federal agencies to submit plans to cut their projected spending by a full 10 percent in 2013.
The good news is that the idea of serious spending restraint has more support than ever before. The bad news is that getting people to support the concept is easy. The hard part is getting beyond the concept, and there is no sign so far of doing that.
Several Republican presidential candidates, including Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, have taken what sounds like an uncompromising stand. They've signed on to a plan sponsored by a group called Strong America Now to eliminate the federal deficit by 2017 without tax increases.
But the plan is not a plan. It's a fantasy. As Strong America Now's website explains, it is supposed to "detect and eliminate 25 percent of spending per year across the federal government." Per year. Seriously.
Not only that, but those cuts are supposed to excise nothing but vast quantities of waste -- rather than programs that actual people care about. And my impression is that we'll pay for it all by raffling off unicorn rides and following leprechauns to find pots of gold.
The GOP's budget star is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who has specific plans to revamp the big entitlement programs that take up such an outsized share of federal obligations. What no one seems to have noticed is that even his controversial "Roadmap for America's Future" does little to rein in spending in the foreseeable future.
In fact, it would boost federal spending from 21.6 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 to 22 percent in 2016, 23.2 percent in 2026 and 24.1 percent in 2036. Not until 2051 -- 40 years from now -- would outlays drop below the 2012 level. As a result, the total debt would climb to 100 percent of GDP by 2043, a 50 percent increase.