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"People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." - George Orwell

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Era of Big Government ? 

Republicans have largely given up trying to reduce the size of government. For years those of us on the right have argued that spending and taxes are too high. There is the occasional success to buoy us; the program cut, the tax reduced. But by and large spending has gone nowhere but up, and few significant programs are eliminated.

The reason for this is simple; the people want these programs. To be sure, many people will say that they want taxes and spending reduced, but when it's decision time nothing much get's done.

President Bush's latest budget calls for$ 2.34 trillion in federal spending. What's worse, his first three budgets increased spending by 8% each year, well above inflation.

If one takes a look at Federal spending since 1971, and only look at the dollars, the trend is straight upward. But if one views spending as a percentage of the economy, we're at the same 20% that we were in 1971. So some will say that the situation is not as bad as we sometimes make out. But if one takes a closer look, and sees how our spending has changed, then it is clear that the trend is disturbing.

Defense spending as a percentage of the federal budget has gone down (with only a slight uptick since 9/11), while programs like Medicare and other individual benefit programs have gone nowhere but up. The point is that the trend points to higher spending in the future, higher spending as a percentage of the budget, that is.

I read the words of Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in todays Washington Times and immediately knew that he was on to something:
Many Republican governors and lawmakers in Congress " and their constituents " say they want to cut spending, but they won't sacrifice spending programs that are popular, said Mr. Huckabee, who is slated to become chairman of the National Governors Association this summer.

The propensity to support big government may be "cyclical," he told a meeting of editors and reporters of The Washington Times.

"But we're living in a time when everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die" " a time, he said, when "everyone says, "I want smaller government,'Â " but then votes the opposite way.
I remember one time reading about how this occured with our state senators in Richmond. The observer noted that the newly elected representatives talked big while on the campaign trail, but once they were elected and actually took a look at the budget, they realized that something like 50% of state spending was on education. Another 25% or so was on transportation. You can forget about trying to cut either of those. Between them and general administrative costs, there's not much left to cut.

Huckabee's solution is to make the government "leaner and more efficient." This sounds like a retreat to 1950's "me-too" Republicanism, but it's hard to argue with his premise.

As one with some small experience in and around government (father and mother involved in town politics, mom is mayor today. I've been on my homeowners board and am on a town commission) I've come to realize, too, that once these programs are in place there's just about impossible to eliminate. Further, the reality is that most people want them, despite what they may say.

Grover Norquist runs an organization called Americans for Tax Reform. Their mission statement says that they "Oppose all tax increases as a matter of principle." They invite all elected officials (and those running) to take a "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" in which they swear they will never increase taxes or reduce deductions.

All well and good. Huckabee was recently criticized by Norquist for increasing the sales tax in his state. But as Huckabee points out,
"Grover's never been in government, doesn't have to balance a state budget, never had a state constitution forcing him to deal with a balanced budget," Mr. Huckabee said at a meeting with editors and reporters from The Washington Times.

"Grover's never been in a situation where he couldn't borrow money so he didn't have to raise taxes or tell old people he's just going to take them out of the nursing home and drop them on the curb," he continued.

"If Grover wants to run for governor, there's an election next year in Arkansas. He can get his residency requirements lined up. And there are 36 other states he can run in next year," the governor offered.
It is surely distressing to hear a Republican trot out lines usually reserved for Democratic scare tactics. That he does so takes him off my list of candidates I'll consider in '08.

And it well may be that Huckabee does not have to raise taxes. I don't know, I haven't studied the situation in Arkansas, so can't say who is right. My purpose here is simply to make a few uncomfortable observations:

One, that the people of this country have come to not only accept but demand a relatively high level of government spending.
Two, that although the total amount of federal spending as a percentage of the economy has not really increased since 1971, the trend is in favor of a change to higher percentage spending.
Three, that once in place these programs are just about impossible to eliminate.
Four, that the GOP has largely given up trying to reduce the size of government. |
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