Magazine | March 7, 2011, Issue

Budgets, Bulbs, and Buggywhips

Return to 2008 spending levels? Are they mad? We all remember that nightmare year when we didn’t spend enough money. Bridges fell, sinkholes ate schools whole, a sullen hobo army drifted through the nation’s cities wearing cardboard shoes, holding up their pants with one hand, panhandling with the other. It was the year the government officially used shady payday-loan offices to fund essential things, like the Strategic Hummus Reserve or the Federal Zeppelin Corps. There wasn’t even money for a single blue-ribbon panel, which led to a staggering dearth of Findings, and the lowest number of Recommendations since 1934, when the Depression forced many panels to burn their white-paper reports to stay warm. If it hadn’t been for President Obama hosing us down with stimulus lucre, most Americans would be bony sacks living in idled boxcars. Instead, we’re lucky enough to be lectured by the first lady about our waistlines. How soon we forget.

Thus this brilliant budget, which jacks up spending to $46 trillion over the next ten years. (The official term for a number that large is a “Zimbabwe.”) Granted, there are cuts. The Zeppelin Corps will be merged with the Dirigible Reserve, for example. As the president noted in a speech to Ohio Blacksmiths Local 203, the Equine Motivational-Instrument Security Act, which has been subsidizing buggywhip production since 1901, will be rewritten so we’re doing more with less — the subsidy will be cut 50 percent, and the government will partner with buggywhip producers to find new ways to inspire horses, using our 21st-century understanding of brain chemistry and animal psychology. “There are those who say the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of making horses run faster,” the president said, his chin tilted up to indicate resolve in the face of strawmen. “I say a nation crisscrossed with high-speed stagecoach lines is equipped not just to help business compete. They will also carry the mail and provide easy access to jobs for tomorrow’s schoolmarms.” One blacksmith, hearing the speech, said he hoped the horses would come back to his suburban community, which had been home to a thriving medical-technology industry until the taxes on medical devices forced most firms to relocate to one of those islands in the Caribbean where ships stop and everyone buys a T-shirt.

Okay, that last part was a bit of hyperbole. Not everyone buys a T-shirt.

At least the Republicans have proposed cuts. But most of the people who sent them to Washington regard the $100 billion reduction as the equivalent of spitting on your hands before you grasp the axe handle and really get to work.

#page#But it’s not just what they should cut. It’s not just about reworking entitlements so the generations of the future won’t be handing over 70 percent of their paycheck to pay for debt — if they can get a job that doesn’t involve hairnets, that is. It’s also about training the government to stop thinking it must do something about everything.

For example. Buried in the mound of laws you’ll find something minor that symbolizes exactly what we’re up against. In January, H.R. 91 was introduced: the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act. Yes: the BULB Act. What a coincidence! This bill would repeal the imminent ban on incandescent, or “good,” light bulbs, so you wouldn’t have to buy CFLs, which are loaded with so many nasty substances that al-Qaeda could shut down an entire small town just by sending someone to Home Depot to take a baseball bat to the CFL racks. Everyone’s read the warnings: If you break a bulb, open up all the windows, go outside, pound a FOR SALE sign in your yard, live in a tent in the park, and mail the bulb shards to NASA for eventual dispersal in the sun’s corona. The laws covering the disposal of a lawfully eliminated fetus are probably less stringent than the laws about getting rid of a CFL. Most people will just throw them away, adding tons of toxins to the waste stream. Domestic garbage: now enriched with mercury, for extra goodness! Anti-bulb-choice advocates say that won’t happen because it’s not supposed to happen. Why, it’s against the law. Yes indeed. And no one drove 56 mph in the Carter years.

Sure, the president would probably veto your right to choose a freakin’ light bulb because it will contribute to climate change, and people on the third floor of Miami condos will drown cursing his name for not holding back the oceans: You should have subsidized LED technology! Even though there were arsenic issues, they could have been worked out, given time blub blub blub. But it’s instructive: The massive, complex, infinitely variable planetary ecosystem can be tweaked to our benefit if we start to use poison bulbs. Fiscal catastrophe can be solved with teeny cuts, no structural reform of entitlements, the wholesale inhalation of the medical system, crushing taxation, and “investment” that subsidizes new techniques of extracting red corpuscles from rocks. They think getting oil from shale is ridiculous, but blood from stones, yes, that’ll work.

If we invest enough.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com. 

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