I started to write a post labelling President Obama’s promise to cut the deficit in half as the first careless utterance of his term, and not a very good idea even if it could be done. Then I listened to the speech tonight and twigged to what he has in mind. Or at least I think I have.
I am sure there will be some self-defeating, triangulatory budget cuts coming down the pike, but it seems clear from the speech that what Obama plans is a form of what they used to call the Peace Dividend, the conversion of now-superfluous defense spending to other more useful purposes. So, a good chunk of Obama’s savings will come from winding down our commitment in Iraq and “not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use.” This target was linked with several other examples of pork-barrel spending for GOP-leaning constituencies, such as ending “direct payments to large agribusinesses that don’t need them.” Amen! Munitions (my preferred more accurate retro term over “defense”) and agriculture have long been two areas in which vast sums of public money have spent to boost the profits of people who immediately turn around and give some of it back to politicians who promise to get the government off their backs. The Projectionist Right, you might call them, wards of the state who can’t stop complaining about it.
The really clever and yet doubly praiseworthy bit had to do with the changes in government accounting practices Obama plans to implement:
Finally, because we’re also suffering from a deficit of trust, I am committed to restoring a sense of honesty and accountability to our budget. That is why this budget looks ahead ten years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules – and for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price.
An incredible and increasing proportion of the government’s spending on “national security” has been hidden since the beginning of the Cold War, especially in the Reagan and Bush years. Obviously minmizing these figures made it easier to make the typical GOP arguments for transferring money from domestic social programs to their favored constituencies, under the pretense that the federal budget was bloated with wasteful “welfare” programs while Baby Pentagon went begging for a new set of aircraft carriers. Obama’s more honest accounting will shock people with just how much of our national wealth we have been flushing down the defense establishment all these years. By revising the Bush era deficits vastly upward, it will also make this cutting the deficit in half promise considerably more achievable.
Call it a potential case of doing well politically by doing something really good for the cause of honest government. That is high praise in my book.