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.
Lawmakers have never been good at predicting how much their projects would cost taxpayers. “In 1967, the House Ways and Means Committee predicted that the new Medicare program, launched the previous year, would cost about $12 billion in 1990,” a report from the Senate Joint Economic Committee noted in 2009. “Actual Medicare spending in 1990 was $110 billion—off by nearly a factor of 10.”
Yet no lawmaker has proposed a serious plan that would reduce entitlement benefits or spending.
The same is true of virtually every non-entitlement government program. “Since 1965, [government] spending per household has grown by nearly 162 percent, from $11,431 in 1965 to $29,401 in 2010,” The Heritage Foundation explains. “From 2010 to 2021, it is projected to rise to $35,773, a 22 percent increase.”
Meanwhile, “From 2005 through 2009, Medicare spending on hospice care rose 70 percent,” USA Today reported recently. Do you think the Congressional Budget Office, the economists who are supposed to predict how much the federal government will spend in future years, saw that increase coming? Remember that the next time someone confidently cites the CBO’s predictions about what federal spending will be in the year 2050.
So what does the federal government do well? Meddle in our lives.
“Virtually all cribs manufactured before a new CPSC crib-safety standard took effect June 28 are now illegal to sell,” the same edition of USA Today reports. And, it warns, “EBay and Craigslist are allowing illegal used cribs to be sold, including the drop-side versions banned more than a month ago.”
Wait -- it would be a violation of federal law to sell the crib that my one-year-old sleeps in?
Meanwhile, the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission reassured the newspaper that the agency isn’t “raiding garage sales.” Whew. But: It could. Eventually, federal inspectors may even knock on my door, demanding we move our child to a safer crib or a safer car seat.
The threat to my children isn’t a dangerous crib or lead paint from Chinese-made toys, or anything else that CPSC inspectors have set out to protect them from. It’s that lawmakers are unable to control their spending today, and are piling up debt that my children will have to pay back throughout their working lives. A $14 trillion debt simply isn’t sustainable, and the only way to reduce it will be to reduce spending today and promises of future spending.
We may be on the cusp of “a national debate on the role of government,” Zakaria writes in TIME. “If so, such a debate is long overdue. For more than a generation, Americans have delayed it, at incalculable cost to the country.”
That’s correct. And it’s why we need to hope that the debt debate has caused a permanent change in Washington.