Trimming the fat

Elected officials at the national and state levels are finally dealing with unbalanced budgets. This is, on the whole, a good thing. However, they’re doing it wrong – and making a mess at the same time. Here’s how to do it right, simply, without all the partisan rancor.

First off: yes they have a mandate to fix the budget. However, no they do not have a mandate to rewrite all of our social priorities at the same time. So, stop talking about labor unions, abortion, public radio, privately held utilities, and whatever other hobby horse you always carry around.

Here’s my proposal: Across the board reductions in spending, coupled with across the board tax increases. No exceptions at the top level. It is the job of the administrators at lower levels to make their departments work with less money. If they cannot do so, replace them. At a very high level, turn both the “income” and “expense” knobs until you’re satisfied with the total. Then pause and see what you did. Let it run a year. Adjust as necessary.

I don’t know whether the right number is a 10% budget cut and a 10% tax increase, or some other numbers. However, once it’s just those two numbers – then we have a math problem to solve. Math is easy. Social problems, by contrast, are hard. Budgets are about math – they should be easy.

The important thing about this proposal is that at no point did I have to argue about abortion. That’s key, because we’re never going to solve the abortion argument. We’re particularly not going to do it during a budget debate, under a continuing resolution, with partisan commentators screaming from both sides. So, rather than writing big, complex measures that eliminate particular (small) programs like Planned Parenthood or NPR – let’s write a simple proposal that cuts those programs by the same amount as we’re cutting the military and the transportation departments.

I understand that some people will turn any event at all into an opportunity to go after their pet issue. However, that just muddies the waters. I know that labor unions are big and divisive- but this is not the opportunity to finally bust them once and for all. Seriously – why is Wisconsin talking about collective bargaining rights at all? Isn’t this a budget measure? You want to talk about the budget? Let’s talk about the budget.

The second part of my proposal works out to “do your job.” Department heads should be responsible for a quick synthesis of what happens under some proposed reduction. Go to the department of defense and say “You’re getting a 10% budget reduction. Find a way to deal with that, and tell me the repercussions of your plan.” Do the same with education, with treasury, and with the rest. Any department that claims that a 10% budget reduction makes it entirely impossible to do anything of value at all should have its boss replaced immediately. The circumcision principle states that you can take 10% off the top of anything and it’ll still work (though the guillotine conundrum suggests an important exception). More seriously, if we put all the capable administrators to work at the same time – we’ll get a lot more done than trying to have a few politicians fix everything, from the top down.

The real reason we’re talking about this right now is that the financial recession of the last few years has forced a lot of Americans to address their personal spending gaps, lack of savings, huge debt, and so on. We’ve all taken a hard look at our finances – and that’s not a comfortable conversation most of the time. Coupled with a popular feeling that if I’m getting screwed, then someone must be taking advantage of me, – it has boiled up into a nice succinct talking point. It works out to “you had to do this for your family, so now we’re doing it for the government.”

The budget has been out of balance since I’ve been aware that there was a budget. This is not new, and the world won’t end this year if they just pass a continuing resolution. However, if we’re gonna do it – let’s do it right.

Finally: I want to impose some broad, simple rules and let the market work it out. I specifically do not want government tinkering around and doing complex social engineering. Does that make me a conservative?

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