So you may have heard that a commission established by President Obama to come up with ways of fixing the federal budget mess has floated / leaked a draft of its recommendations.
You may have also heard many ominous things about those recommendations from various politicians and interest groups and what have you.
One iron rule of American democracy is this: the honest, hardworking American voter deserves a pony, and it ought to be free, just like our founding fathers intended it to be. We live in the best and freest country in the world, and there’s no reason our ponies ought not to be the best and most free as well.
Anyone who suggests that you don’t deserve the pony of your choice is probably a tool of nefarious special interests, and anyone who suggests that you need to pay for your pony is trying to reach into your pockets and throttle your free enterprise in the process (don’t go there).
Alas, there’s only one serious way to cope with the budget deficit problem facing the government, and that is: no more free ponies.
Which is why many people thought Obama was stupid to create this commission in the first place, since its eventual report would inevitably recommend the elimination of free ponies, and the headlines the next day would inevitably read “Obama Panel Pushes Government To Drop Ponies” or “Ponies Only For Those Who Can Pay, Says Obama Commission.”
Which is more or less exactly what happened. The panel came up with some very sensible, reasonable recommendations for putting the federal budget back in the black, that basically come down to: no more free ponies.
Most politicians immediately said, “that’s terrible! I’ll fight against it to my dying breath!” While some moderates said that they liked the parts where the panel talked about the possibility of keeping the ponies, but only disagreed with the parts about them not being free. The pony lobby issued a press release saying that it agreed that it was time to sternly look the deficit problem in the face and take bold, courageous steps to fix the problem, but that ponies, for obvious reasons, should be off the table.
But the Obama panel was not blind to the political realities involved. Although every politician ostensibly accountable to the voters is decrying its proposal in public, in private they are daydreaming about how good it would be if it were to come to pass.
Here’s why: most of the campaign contributions, lobbyist bribery, and overall flattery that politicians crave comes from people who are either hoping to get a big payoff in terms of government favors, or who are worried that their government-supplied cash cow may be endangered by upcoming legislation. The Obama-founded panel proposes a plan under which just about everybody — every lobbyist and special interest in the land — will be quaking in their boots and competing with each other to curry favor with the powers that be.
The panel recommends something like a “reboot” of the tax code that would eliminate enormous numbers of tax subsidies, deductions, credits, expenditures, and special tax treatment of certain types of income in one fell swoop, as well as cutting some spending — simultaneously slashing tax rates across the board. Then it would enforce PAYGO-like rules so that legislators could vote any of those popular items back in, but only if they could find a budget offset to pay for it (such as an offsetting spending cut or an increase in the newly-lowered tax rate).
In theory, a congresscritter can vote for the “reboot” — saying that it’s an important, bold, courageous step toward fiscal accountability — while at the same time vowing to go into phase two of the process vigorously defending the favorite tax subsidies of his or her constituents and paymasters — and to the extent that he or she succeeds, can claim the laurels of a hero.
The overt idea behind this is that only the most politically popular subsidies will remain, and the others will fall by the wayside, leaving a flatter, simpler tax code with a broader base — one that allows for a balanced budget. The covert idea is that in this plan, everybody’s ox is in danger of being gored, and everyone will be lining up to try to convince their congresscritters to save their own beloved handout — and trying to win the favors of their congresscritter with all of the money, favors, and flattery that lobbyists know how to dispense and that congresscritters love so much.
I suspect that even this won’t be enough to do the trick, though. Anyone who votes for the “reboot” knows that by doing so they’ll be answering in the next election to ads saying “My opponent voted to eliminate free ponies for disabled veterans, homeless children, and middle-class soccer moms whose children were brought up to believe ponies were part of the American Dream.” Let someone else take the fall for this, not I — I’ve got a tough election coming up…
Which suggests that the structural problems leading to the impending bankruptcy of the U.S. government may in fact be insoluble. Which, unless you’re actively rooting for the bankruptcy of the U.S. government, is probably a bit of a downer. Myself, I’m cracking a beer and smiling.