The upside to sequestration?

Matthew Cooper writing at the National Journal:

Everyone agrees that sequestration is asinine, but Washington is increasingly resigned to it. Other deadlines have been met by fevered last-minute negotiations and, mercifully, avoidance of calamity. This time there's less urgency and more sighs. There is an upside to it, though: an abject lesson on what government does.

At a time when Americans are convinced that foreign aid is a significant part or the budget--the median answer in one survey in 2010 was 25 percent of the budget--it'll be a good object lesson for people to see that government means planes landing safely, meat being inspected, Yellowstone being kept open. Yes, most of what the government does is write checks and defend us, "an insurance company with an Army," so the saying goes. But it does a lot more. 

Sure, the agencies and departments could juggle accounts for a while to prevent the most egregious cuts to discretionary spending. I outline that here. We should be wary of the "firemen first" principle, where agencies cut or threaten to cut their most popular programs first.

But if agencies and departments can't or won't juggle their books, hey, let people see what government really means. As with sanitation or teacher strikes in big cities, it won't necessarily endear taxpayers to feds, although being furloughed is more likely to prompt sympathy than going on strike. But it would at least be a teachable moment. There's something sobering about aircraft carriers that won't sail and forest rangers who won't be paid to protect.

Cooper makes a good point. This sequester, as a means to cut the budget, is a horrible instrument. It doesn't cut nearly enough and it cuts too much of the wrong programs.

As for the "abject lesson" of demonstrating to ordinary Americans what government does, one would prefer a different example to learn from, but the point is valid.

Government is neither good, nor evil. It simply "is." It is as close to a man-made force of nature that we know of. It carries forward its own momentum, largely untroubled by human control because it is impossible to get a handle on an entity that is so big, whose influence is so vast, and whose employees many times fiercely resist direction from above.

We have asked the national government to do too much. This is the no-brainer part of the sequester. But there are functions of government that are vitally necessary to our health, our safety, and our quality of life that we cut at our own peril. Individually, we spend a pittance on programs like air traffic control, food safety, and weather monitoring. The amount of those individual programs can be measured in the thousandth of a percent of the total federal budget. But collectively, they add up and trying to get a handle on why government spends what it spends, and where it spends, would help us make more intelligent choices in where we can cut safely and prudently.

You can't have 50 different air quality or water quality standards. Nor can Arkansas have different rules governing food safety than Iowa. It would make commerce all but impossible if the states were responsible for many of the programs that we take for granted that protect our life and health.

If the sequester reveals why these programs are necessary, it will be a silver lining in a very dark cloud that hangs over Washington.

Matthew Cooper writing at the National Journal:

Everyone agrees that sequestration is asinine, but Washington is increasingly resigned to it. Other deadlines have been met by fevered last-minute negotiations and, mercifully, avoidance of calamity. This time there's less urgency and more sighs. There is an upside to it, though: an abject lesson on what government does.

At a time when Americans are convinced that foreign aid is a significant part or the budget--the median answer in one survey in 2010 was 25 percent of the budget--it'll be a good object lesson for people to see that government means planes landing safely, meat being inspected, Yellowstone being kept open. Yes, most of what the government does is write checks and defend us, "an insurance company with an Army," so the saying goes. But it does a lot more. 

Sure, the agencies and departments could juggle accounts for a while to prevent the most egregious cuts to discretionary spending. I outline that here. We should be wary of the "firemen first" principle, where agencies cut or threaten to cut their most popular programs first.

But if agencies and departments can't or won't juggle their books, hey, let people see what government really means. As with sanitation or teacher strikes in big cities, it won't necessarily endear taxpayers to feds, although being furloughed is more likely to prompt sympathy than going on strike. But it would at least be a teachable moment. There's something sobering about aircraft carriers that won't sail and forest rangers who won't be paid to protect.

Cooper makes a good point. This sequester, as a means to cut the budget, is a horrible instrument. It doesn't cut nearly enough and it cuts too much of the wrong programs.

As for the "abject lesson" of demonstrating to ordinary Americans what government does, one would prefer a different example to learn from, but the point is valid.

Government is neither good, nor evil. It simply "is." It is as close to a man-made force of nature that we know of. It carries forward its own momentum, largely untroubled by human control because it is impossible to get a handle on an entity that is so big, whose influence is so vast, and whose employees many times fiercely resist direction from above.

We have asked the national government to do too much. This is the no-brainer part of the sequester. But there are functions of government that are vitally necessary to our health, our safety, and our quality of life that we cut at our own peril. Individually, we spend a pittance on programs like air traffic control, food safety, and weather monitoring. The amount of those individual programs can be measured in the thousandth of a percent of the total federal budget. But collectively, they add up and trying to get a handle on why government spends what it spends, and where it spends, would help us make more intelligent choices in where we can cut safely and prudently.

You can't have 50 different air quality or water quality standards. Nor can Arkansas have different rules governing food safety than Iowa. It would make commerce all but impossible if the states were responsible for many of the programs that we take for granted that protect our life and health.

If the sequester reveals why these programs are necessary, it will be a silver lining in a very dark cloud that hangs over Washington.

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