President Obama recently denounced the “mindless austerity” that threatens his dream of spending $4 trillion in the coming year. In lieu of the current sequestration restrictions on federal spending, Mr. Obama promises “smart investments that strengthen America.” But “smart investments” are a pipe dream as long as the president and his team view federal spending as magic beans to miraculously make America rich.
Federal spending has soared by almost 20 percent since 2008. Yet, to hear Mr. Obama, one would think federal employees are forced to sell pencils on Constitution Avenue to raise funds to finance their bureaucratic salvation missions.
The president whoops up new federal outlays as the panacea for every real and imagined ill the nation faces. He wants $75 billion over the next decade to bankroll universal preschool for 4-year-olds — despite a stack of federal audits proving Head Start is a bust. Mr. Obama wants $60 billion to provide free community college education for all Americans regardless of how federal funding has already spawned endless bureaucratization and strangling mandates on college campuses. Mr. Obama wants $5 billion for start-up funding for technology manufacturing despite the abysmal record of his “green tech” bankruptcy spree early in his presidency.
Rather than hard evidence of successful interventions, the Obama team hustles one multiplier after another to supposedly prove that federal spending boosts the economy. Obama administration officials claimed that the 2009 stimulus would produce $1.57 in economic activity for each dollar spent, that food stamps generate $1.84 in economic activity per dollar of handouts, and that each dollar of unemployment benefits produces $2 in economic activity. And every purported “multiplier” effect is treated as a revealed truth that can vindicate any federal outlay.
Though the federal debt has increased by almost $7 billion since Mr. Obama office, the president hectored in his anti-austerity speech: “America can’t afford being shortsighted, and I’m not going to allow it.” He simply ignores how the soaring debtload will be a financial ball and chain on the young people he claims to cherish and undercut American growth for decades to come.
Deriding budget opponents for their “mindless austerity” implies that anyone who objects to more federal spending is either insane or an imbecile. Instead of dealing with economic reality, the administration pummels Americans with platitudes. A recent Department of Education fact sheet boasted: “The President’s 2016 Budget is designed to bring middle-class economics into the 21st Century.” But there is not a single middle-class family in the nation that plans to overspend its income by almost $500 billion this year. Middle-class prudence is the mirror image of Mr. Obama’s prolifigacy.
Many Obama supporters are so blindly pro-government they sometimes shriek at any suggestion that tax dollars could be squandered. After the president insisted that his 2009 stimulus plan “cannot and will not be an excuse for waste and abuse,” The Washington Post published an indignant protest by one of its reporters titled, “The case for waste.” The article’s subhead captured the enlightened attitude inside the Beltway: “The idea’s to stimulate the economy. So what if we blow a few billion on the wrong things?” George Washington University law professor Steven Schooner perfectly expressed the conventional wisdom: “Are we capable of grasping the concept that in a struggling economy, it’s more important to throw money at the problem, even if it’s possibly inefficient and possibly inaccurate?” The fact that Mr. Obama’s stimulus program shattered many longstanding boondoggle records has been swept under the Beltway rug.
A recent Rasmussen poll found that three times as many likely voters favored cutting rather than increasing federal spending. Rather than Mr. Obama’s blind faith in spending, many Americans prefer President Grover Cleveland’s 1893 dictum that “the waste of public money is a crime against the citizen.” Every waste of tax dollars undermines the legitimacy of the entire political system. If Mr. Obama has the right to seize and squander everybody else’s money, citizens are nothing more than beasts of burden for political ambition.
There are human costs to every federal snafu. Governments cannot waste tax dollars without squandering part of the lives of the people who earned those dollars. Every billion dollars taxed away pre-empts the equivalent of 5,000 families from buying starter homes, or a million people from taking a summer vacation, or citizens from buying 40 million new books or 60 million cases of beer.
It was a common American saying in the 1930s that “we cannot squander our way to prosperity.” There is nothing in the academic pedigree of Mr. Obama or his top advisers to refute that ancient truth. Politicians do not have a divine right to spend more money every year regardless of the damage they inflict.
• James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” (Palgrave, 2006) and “Lost Rights” (St. Martin’s, 1994).