Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Opinion

Column: Budget debate? Bring it on.

There is plenty to criticize, or even be outraged by, in the 2018 budget unveiled this week by the Trump administration without having to resort to the hackneyed end-of-the-world rhetoric used by advocates and interest groups — and, alas, too many journalists — in response to every proposed cut in government spending.

From a strictly rhetorical point of view, it is simply inaccurate to claim that a program has been "decimated" or that lives will be "devastated" because total spending might be cut 10 percent or even 20 percent from what had been projected. Yes, it is possible that such cuts may be unwise, unfair or even economically self-defeating. But it is also possible that such cuts reflect an economic judgment that past increases in spending are unsustainable going forward (health spending, for example), or a reasonable preference for shifting control and funding to a different level of government (housing subsidies, for example), or are based on a credible assessment that programs are ineffective (job training is an example).

I like Masterpiece Theater and a Beethoven symphony as much as the next upper-middle-class professional, but I can see why some people might wonder why their tax dollars should subsidize my taste for British drama and classical music but not their preference for Nascar and country western music.

And is it really beyond the pale to think that the highly profitable drug and medical device industries might pay for a greater share of the cost of running the Food and Drug Administration so taxpayers can pay less?

For years now, it has been obvious to both liberal and conservative analysts that the sharp increase in the number of people who qualify for Social Security disability payments has more to do with the declining job prospects of blue-collar workers than it does with any sudden increase in physical and mental infirmities in select demographic groups. But rather than welcoming a proposal to review some of these disability designations, the president's opponents have seized the opportunity to grandstand on the issue, portraying the proposal as a cruel effort to punish everyone with a physical or mental handicap.

Some of us may also consider it hard-hearted to cut off food stamps or child tax credits to poor families that have come to this country illegally, but even we must acknowledge that there are millions of Americans who are outraged by the widespread flouting of immigration laws.

Or consider the proposed cuts in research funding. Given the number of people who die from cancer or suffer from the ravages of Alzheimer's, some of us are inclined to spend whatever it takes to find a cure for such diseases. But is the right number necessarily $32 billion, the current budget of the National Institutes of Health. Maybe the right number is double that amount — or half of it. The answer is not self-evident. It is quite possible, in fact, that there is a point of diminishing returns to research into any disease, or that too much of the money goes to administration rather than actual research, or that there are less expensive ways to save more lives.

These are legitimate questions that deserve a respectful hearing and reasoned discussion. What they don't deserve is to be shouted down by a Washington establishment that reflexively dismisses any proposal to cut any program at any time. We ought to be able to question the spending priorities of the conservative Republicans who wrote this budget without resorting to questioning their motives, their intelligence and their humanity.

Indeed, the real problem with the Trump budget is not that it challenges the efficacy of so much government spending, but that it does so selectively and inconsistently.

If, for example, it is necessary to slow the growth in spending on medical care for the poor and disabled under Medicaid, which has been rising faster than the rate of medical inflation, why is it not necessary to slow similar growth in spending on medical care for the elderly under Medicare? Entitlement reform is not something that ought to be limited to the poor.

There's a similar lack of consistency in the treatment of national security spending. Does anyone really believe that the waste, fraud and abuse that the president believes to be so rampant in programs dealing with health, education and welfare is somehow absent in programs run by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, where the president and his Republican allies are proposing double-digit increases?

Steve Pearlstein is a business and economics writer who is also Robinson Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University. © 2017 Washington Post

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