Attack of the artificial crises

March 25, 2013

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO — Not many of my friends or neighbors are sitting on pins and needles, worrying that the world as we know it will end as the federal government “slashes” spending as part of the automatic sequester cuts mandated by a previous budget bill.

And not many people have been thinking, “Geesh, there’s nothing we need more than higher California taxes and additional directives from state legislators to help us live our lives in a better and healthier manner!”

Yet, the political class is acting as if its own crisis — i.e., some gentle restraints on its power to tax and spend — is the same as a real crisis in the lives of the people whom they govern. So officials are scaring us into submission. This game has gotten particularly ugly at the federal level, where the president and members of Congress have raised the specter of poisoned food and endangered troops to get us to acquiesce in their latest strategy scam for more dollars.

At the state level, legislators used similar tactics to convince voters to raise income taxes and sales taxes last November. But it seems as if it’s never enough. In the new legislative session, they continue to use hobgoblins — i.e., childhood obesity caused by sugary soda pop and the environmental calamity posed by single-use plastic grocery bags — to impose new fees and taxes that would fund programs on the backs of officially disapproved, although legal, behavior.

Media ignore vulgar posturing

Unfortunately, large segments of the media reliably champion these efforts, which also serves to keep many of the rest of us from behaving as any normal people should — by laughing out loud at the vulgarity of the posturing and by pointing out some fairly obvious facts.

For starters, we know how governments often spend money. We’ve watched as the Obama administration has thrown around hundreds of billions of so-called stimulus dollars that have enriched the politically well-connected without doing all that much for the economy. A good bit of that money has been lost or, perhaps, stolen; there are hundreds of ongoing investigations into potential stimulus-related fraud.

Brown, Face the Nation, April 29, 2012In California, Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing a high-speed-rail system that critics warn will end up costing $100 billion, or more, to basically replicate what Southwest Airlines already offers — quick travel within the state — using private dollars. We know that state officials refuse to reform government-employee pensions, often in the six figures, that have led to a half-trillion-dollar unfunded liability. We’re aware of the newest suspected boondoggle — a multibillion-dollar plan to change the direction of the Sacramento Delta water flow in order to save a few bait fish.

We know that the stated solution for chronic state budget deficits is predicated on something virtually impossible, that Democratic leaders suddenly embrace governmental austerity. As the Sacramento Bee reported this past week regarding the new legislative session, “Taxes, fees or other charges are proposed for soda pop and sweet tea drinkers, motorists, gun owners and people who frequent strip clubs, buy prepaid cellular phone minutes or use paper or plastic shopping bags. Businesses are targeted by proposals ranging from an oil severance tax to a manufacturers fee for mattress recycling and a crackdown on firms that avoid property tax reassessments after ownership changes.”

The truth about government spending

The amounts are much larger with the federal government. We have seen what it costs to maintain a military presence worthy of an empire. We are familiar with the salaries paid to federal workers and the soaring debt the government faces to pay for its “entitlement” promises. We know that government spending has long been on an upward trajectory regardless of what party putatively steers the Leviathan.

Yet, we’re supposed to believe that cutting a measly $85 billion from a $3.55 trillion budget — a mere 2.4 percent — is going to stretch the government so thin that it can’t even maintain tours to the White House and it might even endanger consumers by laying off meat inspectors.

Are those the best theatrics they can come up with?

This is the equivalent of a family that spends lavishly but then threatens to abandon its pets and starve the children when its trust fund investments don’t perform well enough one year. You know that, the moment new funds come in, they’ll be back vacationing in Maui and buying big-screen TVs.

A crisis designed to inflame the masses

benjaminsTo forestall any potential panic, Congress last week was working on legislation that keeps meat inspectors on the job and also was “giving government managers flexibility to minimize the impacts on the public by finding the savings elsewhere in their budgets,” according to a McClatchy report. That bill reinforces reality. This is a manufactured crisis designed to upset the masses. Really — we need congressional legislation to legalize common sense in public agencies?

The truth is seeping out. The conservative Heritage Foundation reported, “Federal spending is projected to grow from $3.6 trillion in 2013 to more than $6 trillion by 2023, a 69 percent increase without sequestration. Even with sequestration, federal spending would still grow by 67 percent. Sequestration barely even slows the growth in spending, let alone cuts any spending out of the overall budget.”

Somehow, the nation will survive, even if the federal government doesn’t grow as rapidly as planned, and California might get by without a bullet train or higher taxes on nude dancing. As usual, the first step in controlling government’s endless appetite is to call its bluff and refuse to give in to predictable and, at times, laughable, scare tactics.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Write him at [email protected].

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