Tad DeHaven

Sheldon Richman and I spent a lot of time last week running through numbers from the Congressional Budget Office in order to gauge sequestration’s effect on federal spending. In the resulting column, Richman lays out the numbers and asks a pertinent question: How the $#!?% is the average voter supposed to have a clue about this stuff? 

From Richman’s column: 

I subjected myself to this pain because I’m a professional masochist. I’m paid to do it. How many people who are not so rewarded are likely to search for, locate, and download CBO spreadsheets to see the numbers for themselves? Very few, I’ll bet. And who can blame those who won’t? They have families, friends, communities, and jobs to attend to — matters they actually affect through their actions. But if most people don’t have time or incentive to learn the facts about this one issue (never mind all the others) — and if the news media can’t be counted on to tell the plain story — how can Americans fill the role of “informed voters” that democracy in theory requires? 

Next year there will be congressional elections. If a voter doesn’t know the facts about the budget, she won’t be able to judge the sequestration issue. And if she can’t do that, how can she intelligently decide which congressional candidate to vote for? 

Most people would say that voting for Congress is important, so why don’t they spend time doing this necessary research? Because they know that the effort would have no real payoff. Time is scarce, and there are always other uses of one’s time that really will make a difference. The average congressional district has 600,000 residents, three-quarters of whom are of voting age. No single vote will determine who gets elected or what policies are enacted — that is, no matter what you do, the outcome will be the same. And should your favorite candidate win and enact his program, you would pay only a tiny fraction of the total cost of that candidate’s policies; most of the cost would fall on others. So why exert much effort?

And that’s why Democrats (and Republicans devoted to the U.S. military empire) have spent the past few weeks trying to scare the pants off of voters. It remains to be seen if their efforts will pay political dividends. Saturday Night Live’s mocking of the administration’s sky-is-falling posture is a hopeful indication that the anti-spending cuts politicians might have overplayed their hand. Keep in mind, however, that we’re only talking about $44 billion in spending cuts versus $3.5 trillion in total spending this year. The cuts would have to be multiplied by a factor of almost twenty just to balance the budget. 

Imagine the hysteria if that were on the table. 

Those of us who would prefer to live under a vastly more limited federal government have our work cut out for us in convincing the average American that bigger isn’t always better.


Tad DeHaven

Tad DeHaven is a budget analyst at the Cato Institute. Previously he was a deputy director of the Indiana Office of Management and Budget. DeHaven also worked as a budget policy advisor to Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Tom Coburn (R-OK).