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The sequester: Now what?

March 4, 2013, at 9:49 AM

Headline: World Doesn't End With Sequester; Democrats Pessimistic. 

So President Obama formally lopped off a part of the government on Friday. Watching the politicians on the Sunday shows, the anti-climax seems to have emboldened Republicans and genuinely spooked Democrats.

Democrats have long believed that the Republican ability to resist tax cuts stems from the lack of causality that people perceive between a government action and their own lives. Since the sequester did not shut down anything immediately, the causal chain is not being established. The sequester won't condition Americans to link the budget to their lives until they actually experience a long line at the airport, or until they know a relative who has been furloughed, or until they try to go to a national park that cannot open. Even still, these might be minor annoyances. Yes, the sequester will bring more suffering to the vulnerable. But the vulnerable don't have much of a voice, and absent lines at the soup kitchen, I don't think Americans will really care. I might want them to care, but I don't think they will.

And the longer they don't care, the more the Republican argument that, hey, a little bit of spending restraint ain't so bad, makes sense. Nevermind that the government has shrunk in relative and even absolute terms (people-wise) rather dramatically already. Wall Street seems not to care, because no one is panicking. 

The sequester will damage the economy and cause people to suffer. And I think Republicans will probably own the problem at some point. But right now, I don't see why, from their perspective, they ought to be eager to make a deal. The longer they hold out, the more the main philosophical debate at the center of these broader questions — the role of government in society — resets. The only refrain you'll hear from Republicans is their contention that they want to give President Obama more discretion to make the cuts more responsibly. That's kind of like saying, well, we'll cut off two-thirds of your television and turn the sound off, but you can still watch the show of your choice. But it sounds good: Since the White House so fears in the indiscriminate cuts, why won't they accept the power to discriminate? 

So, what now? Not much. 

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