Sequestration: A Fiscal Diet That Won’t Fix the Deficit

Sequestration: A Fiscal Diet That Won’t Fix the Deficit

Library of Congress

Every budget expert I know thinks the sequester is just about the stupidest way of cutting spending imaginable, because it cuts equally from fat, muscle and bone. I certainly agree, but today I want to play devil’s advocate and present the case for sequestration.

The basic case is that no one really wants to cut spending. This is no surprise to anyone who has been overweight. We got fat in the first place because we like to eat and resist dieting because we don’t want to give up foods we like.

Consequently, many different methods have been developed that people use to force themselves to diet. I’ve had friends who went away to “fat farms” where there simply wasn’t any food available except what they were allowed to eat. Some people use services like Weight Watchers where they only eat foods provided by the service. A popular diet on Wall Street involves betting large amounts of money that someone can’t meet their weight goal.

All such methods are essentially silly. It would be much easier to just eat less and exercise more, which is what all doctors recommend. But being human beings, doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing is much too simple. We need commitment mechanisms that force us to do the right thing.

The same is true of the budget. Everyone knows, or at least believes, that there is enormous waste in government. A September 27 Fox News poll found that 31 percent of voters believe the federal government wastes more than 50 percent of the budget, 14 percent say it wastes between 41 percent and 50 percent, and 9 percent put the waste figure at between 31 percent and 40 percent. Thus a majority of voters think the government wastes at least 31 percent of all the money it spends.

Of course, my waste is your essential government program. Many polls have been taken asking people what programs should be cut. When asked about specific programs, rather than spending in general, people not only support most of them but often favor increased spending. Below are the results of a March 2012 Harris poll.

Cutting Government Programs

Favor Major CutMinor CutOppose No Cut Increase SpendingNot Sure
Foreign Aid795326121029
Foreign Military Aid744627171449
Subsidies to Business5727293124712
Regulatory Agencies 5626312823516
Space Programs5223293926139
Welfare Spending522625393279
Food Stamps4319244936138
Farm Subsidies42202246351112
Defense Spending4216264935149
Scientific Research 40142750331710
Housing Programs40162450351510
Pollution Control37142353361710
Mass Transportation35122354322210
Aid to Cities33102257431410
Job Training 32112158342311
Revenue Sharing 2691758461216
Highway Financing2562065422310
Health Care228137034368
Aid to Education219127034369
Social Security 12488050318
Source: Harris Poll

As one can see, there are only six programs that a majority of people favor cutting. For all the rest, more people favor no cuts or an increase in spending. But even this gives a false impression about how much people oppose specific cuts because the programs people want to cut, such as foreign aid or space programs, are trivial in terms of federal spending. The three programs where a substantial plurality of people favor increased spending are very big programs indeed: education, health and Social Security.

"Below is a list of different areas of federal government spending. For each, please indicate if you would favor a major cut in spending, a minor cut, no cut at all, or would you increase spending in this area?"

Two polls in December reinforce these findings. A CBS News poll found that people opposed cutting defense spending by a 54 percent to 42 percent margin, opposed reducing Social Security benefits for high-income recipients by a 57 percent to 39 percent margin, and opposed raising the age to qualify for Medicare by a 2-to-1 margin.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll had similar results. By a 68 percent to 28 percent margin people said that cutting Medicaid is unacceptable, by a 60 percent to 34 percent margin they said reducing the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security is unacceptable, raising the age for Medicare is unacceptable by a 60 percent to 36 percent margin, and cutting military spending is unacceptable by a 55 percent to 42 percent margin.

On February 22, Pew released a poll showing that foreign aid, which amounts to one half of one percent of federal spending, is the only program for which more people favor cutting than keeping the same or increasing, and only by the tiniest of margins: 49 percent to 48 percent. On every other program, far more people favor no cuts or an increase than favor a decrease in spending.

It may be that people are more aware of their schizophrenia on spending than politicians realize. Just as overweight people both want to lose weight and not give up eating, they force themselves into situations where they have no choice but to diet in order to lose weight. It’s simplistic to say that they should simply exercise more self-control and avoid gimmicks. But it is human nature for people to use gimmicks to force themselves to do what is right. It may be that sequestration, as flawed as everyone knows it is, is peoples’ way of putting government on a diet. They are willing to suffer the pain and unfairness to accomplish a larger goal.