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How to do budget cuts the right way

July 12, 2013, at 11:29 AM

The Pentagon is sending the alarm about the impact of budget cuts in the next fiscal year, and that alarm is loud and annoying. It's scary if you've got a job attached to one of the projects associated with Pentagon cuts.

Last week, I spoke to a Marine, a 20-year-old, who is stuck in Hawaii (I know, poor guy) because the military has no money to further train him or transfer him anywhere else. His career is kind of stuck until Washington figures out how to think outside the historical moment.

Earlier this week, I started to read Sam Stein's reporting on Head Start mothers whose lives have been turned upside down by the sequester cuts. It's pretty difficult stuff to get through. You come away asking yourself why the government would knowingly contribute to the suffering of its citizens.

(Immediately, I cycled through the blah-blah-blah: these women are so dependent on government that its absence makes them suffer; as bad as whatever's to come will be, it's government's fault for getting people addicted to welfare. Those are nice arguments for cutting the budget in aggregate, but they're absurdly patronizing, at best, when applied to particular programs.)

Head Start did its best to "ameliorate," in Stein's words, the effects of the cuts on families, mostly by shifting money from other programs that resulted in people losing their jobs. Maybe they did find some true savings here and there. But people who did not ask to be poor and who only really ask for their children to get a leg up before they head into kindergarten are genuinely suffering because of something Congress and the president did. Or did not do, in this case. This isn't a theoretical harm, like data in a government computer might be. It's real.

Those who advocate for budget cuts should have their day in the court of moral judgment. And yes, of course, the budget is not an infinite well, and resource distribution is exactly what politics is all about. But maybe there's a better way to lay out for those who are interested the potential effects of budget cuts, and do so in a way that does justice to the arguments for and against cutting the particular programs.

In the same way that executive branch agencies send justification books to Congress laying out precisely how want to spend money during the next fiscal year, responsible budget cutters would be less culpable for suffering if they were honest about it beforehand. They can set up a website and itemize each spending cut in the following way:

Budget item:

Cut requested by:

Number of people who rely on the service or program:

Demographic skew of people who rely on the service or program:

Private sector or other government alternatives for people who rely on the service or program:

Good government group evaluation of program waste/efficiency:

OMB evaluation of waste/efficiency:

Similar government programs:

This would never work, because it would require brutal honesty, but I actually think that it might build support for cutting, for example, farm subsidies, duplicative programs and genuinely wasteful spending. Done properly and with intellectual consistency, it will force Congress to consider the actual harm, as in, human pain and degradation to dignity, that their cuts might lead to, as well as subject the programs themselves to a fair criticism of their value. Perhaps Democrats and Republicans could each contribute a paragraph worth of arguments. Since neutral arbiters have long since kicked the can, I don't suppose that any Republican would trust language written by a Democrat, or vice-versa. Pie in the sky that's too hard to slice without cutting fingers.

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