Small Government Conservatives Revisited

SMALL GOVERNMENT CONSERVATIVES REVISITED….Andrew Sullivan has responded to my question about exactly what he’d cut in order to balance the budget without repealing Bush’s tax cuts or cutting defense spending. Here’s his list:

My back-of-the-envelope wish-list is that I’d repeal the Medicare drug entitlement, abolish ear-marks, institute a line-item veto, pass a balanced budget amendment, means-test social security benefits, index them to prices rather than wages, extend the retirement age to 72 (and have it regularly extended as life-spans lengthen), abolish agricultural subsidies, end corporate welfare, legalize marijuana and tax it, and eliminate all tax loopholes and deductions, including the mortgage deduction, (I’d keep the charitable deduction). For good measure, I’d get rid of the NEA and the Education Department.

Let’s unpack this. Remember the ground rules: Social Security and Medicare are running surpluses and are funded by their own taxes anyway, so they get left out of this picture. We’re looking for a little over $400 billion in actual program cuts, and we’re looking for them in the area of discretionary spending. With that in mind, let’s examine Sullivan’s proposed discretionary program cuts:

  • Repeal Medicare prescription bill. (This is funded out of the general fund, so it counts.) This program only started this year and contributed nothing to the 2005 deficit. Total savings: $0.

  • Abolish earmarks. Total savings: $25 billion, although I’m being generous here.

  • Abolish agricultural subsidies. Total savings: $30 billion.

  • End corporate welfare. This typically refers to special tax treatment, so abolishing it is a tax increase, not a spending cut. Total savings: $0.

  • Legalize marijuana and tax it. This is so speculative that it seems faintly absurd to include it, and in any case it’s a tax increase. Total savings: $0.

  • Eliminate all tax loopholes. This is a tax increase. Total savings: $0.

  • Abolish the NEA: Total savings: $.1 billion.

  • Abolish the Education Department: Total savings: $65 billion.

If Sullivan wants to increase revenue by closing loopholes and increasing the gas tax, that’s fine with me. But in terms of actual budget cuts, he came up with only $120 billion, about one-fourth of the actual federal deficit ? and even that was mostly by the lazy expedient of “I’d just wipe out this program completely,” which isn’t really even a serious response. I hardly even need to add that every one of the things he’d cut are things that don’t affect him personally.

The point of an exercise like this is to force people to set priorities and tell us what they really think the federal government should look like. Based on this, I have to assume that Sullivan wants about $120 billion in program cuts and (at a rough guess) about $100 billion in tax increases. He’s still got $200 billion to go.

UPDATE: Max Sawicky suggests that if we actually implemented Sullivan’s tax increase suggestions wholeheartedly we could indeed balance the budget. That’s certainly possible since “eliminate deductions” and “eliminate corporate welfare” are such vague statements in the first place.

Of course, that’s not exactly a “small government” solution, is it? What’s more, as Max points out, Sullivan’s proposed cuts are no more plausible than “flying to the moon and bringing back the buried treasure.” And even if they were, we’d still be in trouble in the long term. As exercises like this always show, serious, feasible, large-scale budget cutting is simply not in the cards. Conservatives should face this reality and stop playing games.