Insufficiently draconian cuts

Posted: Feb 16, 2005 12:00 AM

Washington has started in on its yearly ferocious battle over the budget. Spendthrifts and budget hawks will be thrilling the public with daring plastic swordplay. Terrible deprecations will be called down upon the heartless budget hawks for their indifference to the human suffering their proposed cuts will bring into being.

 The spendthrifts, in their turn, will be accused of indulging in levels of spending that constitute Babylonian depravity, which will bankrupt the public fisc not only for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren. Have they no sense of responsibility! Such profligacy will earn them posthumous curses from their children for the sundered public treasury we will have left them.

 Already the Washington Post has invoked the memory of the 7th century B.C. Athenian politician Draco, calling President Bush's budget cuts "draconian." Actually, the Washington Post writer may not have known how canny he was in mentioning Draco, one of my favorite characters from the misty past.

 The Athenian people had called on Draco to write down the laws, because they were tired of the aristocrats pronouncing arbitrary oral rules. It turned out that the old unwritten laws -- at least as researched and written down by Draco -- were quite tough. In fact, the penalty for almost all offenses was the death sentence.

 This was fine with Draco. As Plutarch described it: "And Draco himself, they say, being asked why he made death the penalty for most offenses, replied that in his opinion, the lesser ones deserved it, and for the greater ones no heavier sentence could be found."

 Oh, and for the mistake of going in debt, under Draco's laws, debtors were sold into slavery (except for the upper classes, wouldn't you know).

 If only President Bush's cuts were draconian. Unfortunately, like every effort at controlling federal spending in the last quarter century (except for the House Republican effort of fiscal 1995-1996), President Bush's cuts, even if they are fully enacted, won't make any measurable difference to the level of federal debt for our children. He is proposing to reduce non-military, non-entitlement spending of about $400 billion by about $20 billion.

 And he will have hell to pay from an outraged public if he gets even that, because federal spending programs are lovingly and carefully named to induce maximum, if ignorant, public support: children's hot lunches, Head Start, etc. Often more effort goes into naming a spending program than writing it. If the name is sufficiently adorable, no politician will have the nerve to cut it.

 Even President Eisenhower got into the name game back in the 1950s when he titled both his road building and federal aid to education bills "National Defense" programs. Who would deny General Ike a national defense program? And for the purposes of the news cycle, if a politician has voted to cut hot lunches for poor children -- well, what else does an angry public need to know?

 Here is what they need to know: Two sentences from the 2004 Annual Report of the Social Security and Medicare Board of Trustees explains why every word and every cut being talked about this season in Washington won't make any appreciable difference

 "The annual cost of Social Security benefits represents 4.3 percent of Gross Domestic Product today and is projected to rise to 6.6 percent of GDP in 2078 ... Medicare's annual costs are currently 2.7 percent of GDP ? and will reach almost 14 percent of GDP in 2078."

 In other words, today, those two programs alone account for the use of about 7 percent of all goods and service in the United States ($900 billion out of a GDP of about $12 trillion), which is about 36 percent of the federal budget of $2.5 trillion.

 By the time today's toddlers are retiring, those two programs will need 20 percent of America's total domestic economic output, which, if the federal budget remains in the same proportion with our GDP, would be 100 percent (not the current 36 percent) of the federal budget. In other words, those two programs, alone, would take up the entire federal budget. There would be nothing for Education, Medicaid, Defense, CIA, Agriculture, FBI, other pensions and entitlements. Nothing for all the rest of the federal government and budget.

 And it could well be worse than that. As medical science advances to ever more wonderful capabilities, its costs go up. Currently, they are going up at over 10 percent a year -- for all medical services in both public and private sectors. Throw in the impending, if expensive, miracles of genetic medicine, and the sky's the limit.

 Certainly President Bush's cuts should be passed. They should be doubled or tripled and then passed -- but they won't be, because the politicians of both parties are but the willing slaves to a public that collectively wants more than it can produce.

 Someday, Draco's iron law of slavery for debtors will be brought down on our children's heads. Of course, we won't be around to hear their curses. But we may be sweating, nonetheless.