Thursday, February 17, 2011

Armchair Quarterbacks

I just saw a debate online about a friend whose wife was laid off by the local school district. Someone posted a comment saying that this is the natural consequence of reckless spending. He ended his comment with this quote: "This is not a tax thing; rather, it is a priority thing." – I usually have a visceral response to people who slag government in a thoughtless manner.

My response? What then do we cut? K‑12 education? Higher education? Indigent health care? Mental health? Affordable housing? Workforce development? Juvenile justice programs? Jail diversion programs? Law enforcement? Jails? Services for seniors? Community development? Economic development? Transportation infrastructure? Parks and open space? Environmental regulation? Watershed protection?

I get annoyed with those who think government spends too lavishly. Everyone spends too lavishly, government is probably a lesser offender. We have challenges to address in government, but to dump blame on government is lazy. Where do we cut? We want a lot of things; why don't we want to pay for them? It’s time to put the credit cards away, have a really conversation about the future, and pony up. The education funding cuts debate is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

The commenter touted the virtues and grounded perspective of the private sector. I am also shocked to learn that folks in the private sector know that “you can only spend money once.” Really? Isn't that kind of how we got into this mess?

Total government spending (fed, state and local) is 38% of GDP, but let's zero in on the easy target. Discretionary spending at the Federal level is 1/3 of the total budget (the rest is entitlements like Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, debt service, and other mandatory programs). The federal budget for FY2010 was $3.456 trillion. Discretionary spending (once you remove the $690 billion in defense spending and we all know that is off the table) is $660 billion (that is 19% of the total budget. GDP IN 2010 was circa $14.6 trillion. The discretionary federal budget is 4.5% of GDP. That is the lowest level in a generation. In a quick scan of the Congressional Budget Office website, they say the discretionary spending was 8.7% of GDP in 2010. It was 12.6% in 1962. I would imagine that they cut the numbers differently. The point remains, though, because they go on to say that discretionary outlays will continue to decline (to 6.7% by 2020).

Where is said fat to which government critics refer? How much less can we spend on our people, on our society, and still remain globally competitive. That was, afterall, what Obama’s State of the Union was ALL ABOUT! At some point we actually need to pay people to educate our children or we’re screwed.