'Sacrifice' and the 'Impossible' Budget Deficit

TRB

January 14, 1993|By TRB

WASHINGTON. — President-elect Clinton would have us believe that the newest deficit projections, released by the Bush administration on its way out the door, make it impossible for him to fulfill his pledge to slice the monster in half during his first term.

Just last summer Mr. Bush and company were projecting a deficit of (merely) $193 billion in 1996, and shrinking thereafter. Now they say it's more like $266 billion in '96 and $300 billion-plus forevermore. Surprise. And have a nice administration.

Republicans charge that Mr. Clinton's shock is disingenuous. Senator Bob Dole says Mr. Clinton ''should have known'' last summer, when he made his campaign pledges, that the numbers he was relying on were wrong. This raises (indeed, answers) the question whether George Bush -- or, for that matter, Bob Dole -- also ''should have known'' that the Bush administration was cooking the books.

But leave that aside. Each man had his own reason for playing along with the hoax. What's more insulting than the phony surprise is the claim that halving the deficit in four years has now become ''impossible.'' This is a depressingly modest goal to begin with. Mr. Clinton is the first recent president who hasn't promised toeliminate the deficit during his term. To say it's ''impossible'' is absurd.

The 1992 deficit was $290 billion. Most of the shrinkage Mr. Clinton was promising last summer was projected to happen anyway, with economic recovery and the end of the S&L bailout. Now he'll have to work a little harder. To get to $145 billion (half of $290 billion) from the current '96 projection of $266 billion, he'll need to find $121 billion. Throw in another $30 billion for infrastructure investment and other promised goodies and we're looking for about $150 billion. ''Impossible?'' Hell, it's not even difficult.

Every year the Congressional Budget Office puts out a shopping catalog called ''Reducing the Deficit: Spending and Revenue Options.'' Eliminating the NASA space station would save $2.3 billion in 1996, raising tax rates from 15-28-31 percent to 16-30-33 percent would bring in $41 billion, etc. Paying farmers not to grow food will cost a projected $10 billion. Airport subsidies will .. cost $4 billion. Limiting the mortgage-interest deduction to $12,000 a year would bring in $6 billion. Subjecting 85 percent of Social Security payments to the income tax would be worth $27 billion.

The shopping list goes on for 363 pages, and doesn't even include potential savings from systemic reforms such as reducing health-care costs. ''Not difficult'' doesn't mean politically popular. But any honest person ought to have no trouble finding $150 billion worth of deficit reduction that neither hurts the economy nor imperils our national security nor imposes undue hardship on those who can't afford it.

In his confirmation hearing the new budget director, Leon Panetta, talked about the need for ''sacrifice . . . a word we haven't heard very much over the last 12 years.'' He's right about that, and bully for him for using the s-word in public.

But let's put this ''sacrifice'' in perspective. Compared with what? Compared with the size of the economy? We're talking something like 2 percent of GNP. That's a few months' growth, even at the current modest rate. Was this country unthinkably worse off in, say, May 1992 than it is now? That's the degree of ''sacrifice'' we're talking about.

Compared with the short-term sacrifices we have self-righteously recommended to citizens of the former Communist nations to assure their long-term prosperity? Compared with historic efforts America itself has made in the past? The ''sacrifice'' -- for our own good, remember -- is puny.

Compare the necessary sacrifice, above all, with Mr. Clinton's rhetoric: all that stuff about ''revolutionizing government'' and ''national renewal.'' Or this passage from his campaign tract, PTC Putting People First: ''Just as America has always transcended the hopes and dreams of every other nation on earth, so must we transcend ourselves. And in Gandhi's words, 'Become the change we wish to see in the world.' '' I'm not sure what all that means, but surely ''transcending ourselves'' would encompass a reform such as taxing employer-paid health insurance above $335 a month ($22 billion).

Far from transcending the hopes and dreams of every other nation on earth, if the U.S. can't even achieve the modest goal of halving its budget deficit over four years, we have truly become a ''pitiful, helpless giant.'' That was Richard Nixon's famous description of a nation, wracked by Vietnam, unable to protect its interests in the world. How much more pitiful a giant that can't even handle its own internal affairs.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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