Please forgive me for asking but after last night’s debate I wonder when — or if — the Republican presidential candidates will ever have a real conversation about cutting government spending. While the issue of deficits and debt came up a few times, always in the context of blaming President Obama while ignoring any role the Republican Congress has played, the question of how to deal with the nation’s greatest fiscal challenges was almost completely ignored. There was one question about entitlements. But everyone — except Governor Chris Christie — used their media-training skills to bridge to another topic.
The government spends way more than it takes in. And it will get worse with the explosion of spending on Obamacare subsidies, Social Security, and Medicare and Medicaid. At this point, the government can’t tax or grow its way out of this mess. Spending needs to go down. Entitlements need to be reformed. There is no other way to go about it.
However, all we got last night on the spending side (with the exception of Christie’s few comments) was Marco Rubio complaining about Ted Cruz’s vote for a budget that would have cut defense spending, Mike Huckabee’s commitment to funding Social Security forever, and Jeb Bush demanding the end of sequestration (was he asleep the last 3 months?).
This is a huge problem considering that each candidate has a tax plan that would, without serious spending cuts, increase the debt and the deficit, even under dynamic scoring (at least at first). Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind that their tax plans aren’t revenue neutral. In fact, I think it is a good thing because it means they would reduce the amount of money the government collects from us as well as reforming a messed up tax code. But while starving the government beast sounds great to hardcore limited-government types like me, enacting a very large tax cut in a fiscal environment of large deficits is very problematic. And I am not even talking about the politics of such a plan — or the freak out that would follow on the Democratic side.
First, as Milton Friedman reminded us, the true size of government is measured by how much it spends, not by how much it collects. Hence, feeling good about low taxes while the government continues to be a leviathan is nothing more than self-deception.
Then, there is the fact that if Republicans want to continue to afford their foreign policy or want to continue to be able to fund a military with exploding health-care and retirement costs, they’ll have to make some hard choices. And by that, I don’t mean just reducing the growth of non-defense discretionary spending. You can’t have it all after a certain level of debt and deficits.
Finally, the problem with excessive debt and deficits (apart from the fact that it will drag down the economy) is that there comes a point when it limits our ability to respond to emergencies, whether they are military emergencies, economic emergencies, or natural disasters. The Congressional Budget Office has been making that case for a while but no one seems willing to listen.
Hence, to truly starve the beast, the only sensible approach — both politically and economically — is to propose serious spending restraint. To be sure, Senators Rubio and Paul, as well as Jeb Bush, are on the record saying they favor spending cuts and genuine entitlement reform. But then again you have Governor Kasich, who has expanded Medicaid, while several others are totally silent on the issue.
I find the absence of any serious and detailed conversation about cutting spending and reforming entitlements distressing, if only because — if history is our guide — Republicans in the White House and in Congress have shown that they aren’t that eager to address the issue.