The effects of sequestration – the mandatory spending cuts imposed on the Defense Department and domestic agencies that began March 1 – are not likely to be felt for several weeks. The American public has reacted with a collective yawn, and already the economic catastrophe so long predicted has moved to the “in other news” portion of television broadcasts and fallen off the front pages of newspapers.
It seems unlikely that Congress will act soon – if at all – to come up with a better plan to cut spending. The Right is saying the cuts are miniscule, representing just a 2 percent decrease in overall government spending that will hardly be noticed, while the Left is predicting everything short of the collapse of the economy and ensuing social unrest.
As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Though recent European history shows us that austerity is the wrong way to climb out of deep recession, the cuts dictated by the sequester will not wreck our economy. But these cuts will undoubtedly result in higher unemployment and prolong our recovery from recession.
The “2 percent” Republicans speak of is not the figure that domestic government agencies are required to slash. Much of federal spending – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a large portion of the defense budget – is exempt from the across-the-board cuts, which would total somewhere between 5 percent to 10 percent, depending on the agency. Granted, probably all government agencies have some fat that needs to be trimmed. Most businesses do, too. But when the easy savings like cutting back office supplies have been exhausted, there’s no other option than to get rid of people.
President Obama has called the sequestration cuts “arbitrary” and “stupid,” and they are. Not because cutting $85 billion in federal spending is disastrous, but because the cuts are equally applied. Some federal agencies, which presidents and members of Congress have created to ensure their re-election, ought to be cut 100 percent, and some agencies ought not to be cut at all. Sequestration could result in the loss of 2,100 food safety inspectors. Is that something Americans want? Wouldn’t it be better to keep those inspectors on the job while eliminating, say, a handful or a dozen of the government’s 342 programs to promote economic development?
Some have suggested that it would be better to attack spending with a scalpel rather than an ax. Actually, an ax will do, provided that there is some thought behind where it is swung.