Leaders Who Won't Choose
Whatever his other accomplishments, Bush will go down in history as the most fiscally irresponsible chief executive in American history. Since 2001, government spending has gone up from $1.86 trillion to $2.48 trillion, a 33 percent rise in four years! Defense and Homeland Security are not the only culprits. Domestic spending is actually up 36 percent in the same period. These figures come from the libertarian Cato Institute's excellent report "The Grand Old Spending Party," which explains that "throughout the past 40 years, most presidents have cut or restrained lower-priority spending to make room for higher-priority spending. What is driving George W. Bush's budget bloat is a reversal of that trend." To govern is to choose. And Bush has decided not to choose. He wants guns and butter and tax cuts.
People wonder whether we can afford Iraq and Katrina. The answer is, easily. What we can't afford simultaneously is $1.4 trillion in tax cuts and more than $1 trillion in new entitlement spending over the next 10 years. To take one example, if Congress did not make permanent just one of its tax cuts, the repeal of estate taxes, it would generate $290 billion over the next decade. That itself pays for most of Katrina and Iraq.
Robert Hormats of Goldman Sachs has pointed out that previous presidents acted differently. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt cut nonwar spending by more than 20 percent, in addition to raising taxes to finance the war effort. During the Korean War, President Truman cut non-defense spending 28 percent and raised taxes to pay the bills. In both cases these presidents were often slashing cherished New Deal programs that they had created. The only period—other than the current one—when the United States avoided hard choices was Vietnam: spending increased on all fronts. The results eventually were deficits, high interest rates and low growth—stagflation.
Today's Republicans believe in pork, but they don't believe in government. So we have the largest government in history but one that is weak and dysfunctional. Public spending is a cynical game of buying votes or campaign contributions, an utterly corrupt process run by lobbyists and special interests with no concern for the national interest. So we shovel out billions on "Homeland Security" to stave off nonexistent threats to Wisconsin, Wyoming and Montana while New York and Los Angeles remain unprotected. We mismanage crises with a crazy-quilt patchwork of federal, local and state authorities—and sing paeans to federalism to explain our incompetence. We denounce sensible leadership and pragmatism because they mean compromise and loss of ideological purity. Better to be right than to get Iraq right.