Quote of the Day:

I use the word “lie” reluctantly because it is an unforgiving moral marker. Still, it is the correct word.

–Columnist Robert J. Samuelson this morning on what both political parties do when discussing government spending

From 1965 until the present, Samuelson writes, the federal government has spent about one-fifth—or twenty percent—of the gross domestic product (GDP).

But current spending is so high that this limitation cannot be sustained. The federal budget is going to consume more of our GNP because of what Samuelson calls “three realities [that] now threaten this crude stability.”

They are an aging population, which (number two) puts constraints on other spending or raises deficits and taxes, and (three) the gap between what Americans want from government and our willingness to pay taxes. (If you want to see where the money currently goes, the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal has a breakdown with a graphic.)

The conservative response to the third factor is that we must regain an earlier sense of what we want from government. We believe that government costs too much, but we would argue that, even if we could sustain our current level of spending, government now does things that our form government was not set up to do.

At any rate, Samuelson asserts that the twenty percent formula simply must be abandoned, though Samuelson doesn’t know whether the new percentage should be twenty-two percent or something higher. He also calls for higher taxes. Samuelson writes:

[A balanced budget] would also require significant spending cuts to limit the tax increase. For Social Security and Medicare, we should slowly raise eligibility ages to reflect longer life expectancies, perhaps to 69 or 70 over 15 years.

Likewise, we should trim benefits for wealthier retirees. Obsolete programs (say, farm subsidies) should end. Military compensation should be overhauled. But even if all these cuts were made, desirable spending would exceed 20 percent of GDP.

Raising the age to receive Social Security and Medicare, which are for the duration once they begin, should be a no-brainer. So should making other perhaps less obvious but also necessary cuts elsewhere to prevent an even more significant chunk of taxpayer income being sent to Washington. Democrats are more likely to scream bloody murder at the idea of an able-bodied citizen waiting a few more years to claim these benefits, though I'd love to see the GOP adopt this and be courageous about it.  

For Samuelson, both the GOP and Democratic budget proposals are unserious. Like most people who blog here, I am a fan of Samuelson. But I have to say that I think he lets his own prescriptions for solving our economic problems, which includes tax hikes, erroneously label the GOP as dishonest.

I don't think it is dishonest of the GOP to rule out tax hikes–this is something to which the party is committed. As long as the GOP is willing to advocate deepenough cuts, you can't say they are dishonest in not "admitting" that hefty tax hikes are needed.

I don't know if Republicans call for deep enough cuts, but Samuelson, for example, faults them for claiming that their current budget proposal would save $5.5 trillion over the next decade. He says this is wrong and not possible because $2.2 trillion of this amount would come from the elimination of the Affordable Care Act, which, Samuelson argues, isn't going anywhere as long as Barack Obama is in the White House.

Still, even with President Obama in the White House for the remainer of his term, ObamaCare is collapsing of its own weight. It is becoming increasingly clear that one day, possibly sooner rather than later, the U.S. will have another chance with health reform. This time we may get it right and do it in a way that is financially responsible. 

Samuelson also points out that another $1 trillion in GOP savings come from cuts to programs that “are for programs for the poor, such as food stamps.”

This assumes that the people now receiving food stamps are "the poor."

We all sense that is not the case, and I realized this anew oer the weekend when I went to a frightfully fancy “garden market” in my neighborhood. I merely browsed because, frankly, I can’t imagine the kind of spendthriftswho might actually patronize a place like this.

But there it was—the sign reminding customers that food stamps are welcome.

It is time to make sure that food stamps are temporary and go only to the truly indigent or sick who might miss a meal without them. The program is not only financially unsustainable, it is corrupting to individuals and families. I don't want anybody to go hungry, but I applaud the GOP's honesty in saying that it would be willing to cut these expensive and corrosive programs.

Still, Samuelson is even more skeptical of the Democratic Party budget proposal:

By contrast, the Democratic proposal from the House committee involves almost no discipline. Over the next decade, it runs nearly $6 trillion in deficits. It does nothing to curb spending on the elderly. It ignores balancing the budget and simply declares itself “fiscally responsible,” a self-serving and meaningless verdict.

Samuelson has an interesting take on how Democrats inadvertently promote small government:

Here’s the irony: Democrats’ refusal to curb any spending on the elderly is profoundly unprogressive because it intensifies pressures to pare back the rest of government. Democrats have become unwitting agents of smaller government outside the realm of the elderly and health care.  

We cannot have an intelligent conversation on these issues until both Republicans and Democrats come clean.

Republicans need to admit that without tax increases, big and probably dangerous cuts in defense are inevitable. Democrats need to concede that all spending for the elderly is not sacrosanct because this shrinks other important government programs. Until this day arrives, our budget debates will remain what they are today: dishonest exercises in posturing and pandering.

But it is time for conservatives to admit that really, really deep cuts are necessary–and (pace Samuelson) many are beginning to do just that. 

Instead of describing a cut in food stamps as lying, it might be the better characterized as the eiptome of telling the truth to publicly advocate cutting this popular (way too popular) program.  

There is no reason not to put defense spending on the table, too. After all, our current problems in the world have nothing to do with the defense budget.