Growing up in the 1930s, we had a favorite expression: You are talking it to death. It still happens, of course, these days. Terry Gross‘ idiotic dissertations on National Public Radio, for example, nattering on every afternoon about what is in reality the descent of contemporary popular music into new depths of vulgarity and lack of musicality.
And talking to death is about where Washington is on the nation’s fiscal problems, at this writing locked in battle toward the armageddon of “sequestration” when broad, uneconomic swaths would be cut through government expenditures.
The basic logic is clear: During a period of economic recession, we have been living beyond our means. The president argues that cutting back on such long-term essentials as infrastructure, education and public health would be debilitating. He is right, of course. But life — and government — often present us with choices between bad and worse, not good and better. And we are at one of those crossroads.
If the administration would abandon its proclivity for “comprehensive solutions,” it would be possible to eat away at the problem. No one who has read any of the reports of scandalous government expenditures could believe vast economies could not be made, even if in piecemeal fashion.
NPR, for example, presents a likely target. Why should the federal government subsidize a network with tens of millions of listeners and vast income from “rights”? Cutting off NPR also would clear up a dangerous political muddle, that of the government subsidizing unbalanced reporting that favors the Obama administration.
Then there are the vast unused real estate properties the government owns that could be sold. The Tennessee Valley Authority, that icon of the left that has sucked up billions of tax dollars over decades, ought to be sold off to the private sector.
If the president were to call off his war on fossil fuels, vast revenue would be available from leasing public lands and offshore properties for exploitation of natural gas and oil — especially with the new revolutionary shale techniques. (And, by the way, such a shift could do wonders for our balance of payments, the dollar and our Mideast diplomacy.) In the end, the preservation of the environment can be accomplished only with a thriving economy that can afford the frequent huge expenditures necessary to limit or neutralize industrial wastes. The job won’t be done by huge subsidies for wind power, which do everything from reward foreign manufacturers selling us equipment to placing an additional burden on the private-sector utilities to build — yep, you got it — fossil-fuel-powered plants to take up the slack when the wind doesn’t blow.
Obviously, none of these suggestions is going to net the revenues needed to make up the trillion-dollar deficits that the Obama administration is writing into budgets as far as the eye can see. But as Everett Dirksen put it, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.”
That’s essentially the argument between the president and the House Republicans. Mr. Obama sees a need to increase revenue by raising tax rates on higher incomes — unfortunately including small businesses, which historically create the nation’s jobs and are disproportionately important in employing lower-skilled workers.
Republicans want to raise revenue, and thus the government’s total income, by eliminating tax loopholes. It is a no-brainer to understand this is a more difficult path to fiscal sanity, but it is also less of an airy-fairy promise than the president’s pledge to eventually trim more spending at a later date. We have heard that story too many times, and it is essentially what has brought us to the present pass.
What is missing in all the talk-talk is some serious attention to detail, including how to police a rogue bureaucracy in Washington that long ago assumed it not only knew better than the rest of us how to run the country, but wanted to do it in the style to which it had become accustomed. That style features salaries and perks far beyond what most of us in the private sector earn and projects that too often favor friends rather than help the economy.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.
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