Politics & Policy

William Weld’s Wishful Thinking

William Weld and Gary Johnson at FreedomFest 2016 (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Even the Libertarians aren’t serious about fiscal reform.

With apologies to David Koch, there is almost nothing in this world as insignificant as a Libertarian party vice-presidential nominee, though Libertarian party presidential nominees come pretty close.

That being said, I have long admired former Massachusetts governor William Weld, the ex-Republican who has joined fellow ex–Republican governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson on the Libertarian ticket. I don’t admire him enough to vote for him: His ignorant and barbaric stance on abortion alone is disqualifying, but add to it his lamentably limp-wristed attitude toward the Second Amendment and his contribution to the Libertarian party’s shockingly gutless new consensus on the matter of religious freedom and you have one half of a ticket that would not even merit serious consideration if not for . . . everybody else running for president and vice president in 2016.

But say this for William Weld: He’s honest, and he has a sensibly wry perspective on both government and himself. When Ted Kennedy criticized him as being an out-of-touch trust-funder — Ted Kennedy, this was — Weld responded with theatrical indignation that his family had arrived in Massachusetts “in 1630, with nothing but the shirts on their backs and 2,000 pounds of gold.” He is a bit like the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Yankee WASP with a genuine sense of duty.

If Bill Weld cannot tell the truth about balancing the federal budget, then no one can.

And Bill Weld cannot tell the truth about balancing the federal budget.

In an absurd interview with MarketWatch, Weld insists that he and Johnson would submit a balanced federal budget within 100 days of taking office. How? Part of the Johnson-Weld program is Libertarian party wish-fulfillment, heavy on closing military bases, domestically and, presumably, abroad. We might close as many as 20 percent of them, he conjectures, without doing very much damage to our military capacity. He is probably right about that, but that would not have much of an effect on the federal budget. That is because growth in military spending, like most of the rest of growth in government spending, is driven by personnel, not by infrastructure, mainly by paychecks, health-care benefits, and pensions. Never mind the number of military personnel we have, compensation spending per capita in the armed services has risen more than 40 percent since 2001, from an average cost of $88,000 per military employee in 2001 to $125,000 and climbing by 2012, according to a Bipartisan Policy Center study. With all the money we spend on aircraft carriers, bombs, and bases, more than a third of all military spending is personnel compensation, and the majority of that is cash compensation rather than medical benefits and the like. Military medical benefits and pensions alone account for more spending than does the discretionary budget for any federal department save the Department of Defense itself and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Weld says that we should address the deficit by adopting a zero-baseline approach to budgeting, as many of the states do. Because the states cannot run deficits for general operations, they all effectively use zero-base budgeting, whether they recognize that or not. But the federal government can borrow money for general operations, hence our current fiscal mess. And the idea that we’re going to zero-base Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid spending is — to use the technical poli-sci term — nuts.

Presidents, in spite of our consistently shallow political debates, do not have all that much effect on budgets — the decision to appropriate and the decision to tax, and hence the responsibilities for deficits and surpluses, belongs to Congress. The president can certainly stand in the way of reform, as Barack Obama has, and he can through his power to effectively dominate the agenda in Washington establish certain budgetary priorities. But, in the end, it is legislative reform that will be necessary to rationalize our spending, which is dominated by a handful of programs and outlays: national defense, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other health-care subsidies, and interest on the debt.

One of those — interest payments — is in effect impossible to cut. (The federal government could in theory default on its interest payments, but that is a cataclysmic prospect we need not think too much about right now.) The rest are very difficult to cut for political reasons. None of them is within the command of the president of the United States.

There is no way to cut spending without hurting anybody, or without hurting people we do not desire to hurt.

Weld, for his part, pours well-deserved scorn on Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton for their flat refusal to take seriously the need for entitlement reform. But even the doughty Libertarians — who, let’s face it, do not actually have anything to lose, politically speaking — are knee-deep in wishful thinking when it comes to fiscal reform.

There is no way to cut spending without hurting anybody, or without hurting people we do not desire to hurt. Those government jobs are held by our fellow citizens, by our family, friends, and neighbors, and they are going to set up a cacophony of lamentation and gnashing of teeth when we start letting people go, reducing their pay, reducing their pensions, and reducing their health-care benefits. Those entitlements are received not in the main by malingering disability fraudsters but by our grandmothers and grandfathers, and they are going to wail when we reduce their benefits — and so are the retirement-community developers, cruiser-ship operators, airlines, and other oldster-oriented businesses that have made massive investments based on false beliefs about what Americans’ real standards of living in retirement are going to look like 20 years hence. And we are either going to have a lot fewer soldiers, sailors, and civilian administrators or we are going to pay them a lot less — not because we do not value their work, but because we cannot afford to continue as we have been.

We are not going to solve our fiscal problems by closing some military bases, eliminating foreign aid, or cutting redundant federal jobs-training programs. Eventually, we will have to cut where the spending is.

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