Monday, November 8, 2010

Biased Opinion - A Senator Lies to You and Me

Look at the picture above. One of the two people in this picture is a public servant. The other is Senator Jeff DeMint, who is either a complete idiot, or a bald-faced liar. In this Meet the Press interview, he perpetuates a pile of complete untruths about the nature of the Federal deficit, and what must be done to balance the Federal budget. The short version is this: either Jeff DeMint is too stupid to understand the Federal budget (when debating and voting on said budget is a large portion of his fucking job), or he figures that you, me, and everyone else in the world simply won't call him out when he lies about it.

First he exposes a little bit of ignorance when says that raising the debt ceiling is like paying off your credit cards. It isn't. Raising the debt ceiling is like getting a raise on the limit on your credit card. The debt ceiling is, supposedly, a limit on the total amount that the Federal government can borrow. It is supposed to force Congress to exercise a little fiscal discipline by limiting the amount of debt the government can incur. But since Congress sets the debt ceiling and sets the budget, the reality is that the debt ceiling is more or less just a fictional number that gets moved when it is inconvenient for Congress.

This is really a minor peccadillo on DeMint's part. After misstating what the debt ceiling is, DeMint then says he won't vote to raise the debt ceiling unless that raise is accompanied by steps to reduce the deficit and move the budget into balance. And then things come apart for Senator DeMint. The major issue comes when interviewer Gregory David asks exactly how he proposes to reduce the deficit. He claims (among other things) that reducing Federal worker salaries and eliminating government waste will save "hundreds of billions of dollars". He says that we can do a lot of deficit reduction by cutting earmarks. He also says that there is no need to even think about making changes to social security, and proposes increasing the amount spent on medicare. This is all complete bullshit.

As I pointed out here, the non-defense discretionary budget is a relatively small proportion of total Federal spending. Even if you cut it all, the government would still run a deficit. The total cost of the civilian workforce for the Federal government is hard to estimate, since in addition to the salaries paid there are benefits to account for, which makes the calculations murky. I've seen a couple estimates, and the absolute highest I've seen is that in fiscal year 2010, the entire civilian workforce will cost about the Federal government about $260 billion. If you fired every Federal worker and reduced the amount spent on them to zero (you can't, a lot of benefits are for ongoing things like retirement benefits), you'd only save between about a fifth and a fourth of the total deficit. And that requires that you fire everyone. Including the President, every member of Congress, every federal judge, including all the Supreme Court justices, every FBI agent, every IRS agent (and if you fire them, who is going to collect the taxes to pay for everything anyway), every park ranger, every employee of the social security administration, every FDA food inspector, and, well, you get the idea. Just reducing the Federal workforce or cutting worker salaries would get you far less of a deficit reduction.1 In the overall scheme of things, probably a comparatively trivial amount.

DeMint's other two areas for reducing spending - eliminating government waste and getting rid of earmarks, are too trivial to even consider. The 2010 budget contains about $50 billion in earmarks. Which sounds impressive, until you realize that this amounts to 1.4% of the Federal budget. Government "waste" is always touted as a way to save lots of money, but realistically these concerns are always overblown. If one is generous then maybe a similar amount of money is "wasted" as is spent on earmarks (and defining what is and is not waste is a very murky subject to begin with). Even if you assume you can eliminate earmarks and waste entirely, you're saving, maybe $100 billion. And that assumes you eliminate them entirely.

This also assumes that by not earmarking money, you aren't spending it. All an earmark really is is directed spending. If the government is going to spend, say $50 billion on new airplanes for the Air Force, and a Congressman earmarks $1 billion of that to be spent in his district, all that truly means is that $1 billion of the money has to be spent in that Congressman's district. Eliminating the earmark could mean that the $1 billion in spending is also eliminated, or it could just mean that the total amount to be spent is now at the discretion of the appropriate executive agency officials (in this case, that would probably be the Secretary of the Air Force).

So even in the most optimistic scenario for Senator DeMint, he's saved about $350 billion or so. And that's if he fires everyone, eliminates all waste, and cuts all spending currently intended on earmarks. That still leaves a deficit of about $700 billion. Obviously, even that much budget cutting cannot happen using DeMint's targets (the government couldn't function with no civilian workforce after all), so the best he can reasonably hope for would probably be something closer to $100 billion, and then only if he makes some pretty draconian cuts to the Federal workforce and the pay of Federal workers.  In which case, you've pretty much wrecked the economy of both Virginia and Maryland at least, because Federal workers do, in fact, spend their money where they live, feeding those dollars into the economy and helping fuel the prosperity of their region.

And you may have noticed that none of this gets us even close to making a dent of any real size in the $1.17 trillion deficit the Federal government is expected to run in fiscal year 2010.2 The simple fact of the matter is that mandatory spending - social security, medicare, medicaid, interest on the debt, and so on, makes up 60% of Federal spending in a typical year. And as the Baby Boomers age and retire and begin collecting social security and claiming medicare benefits, the dollar total of benefits that the Federal government is obligated to pay is only going to grow. Unless we take serious steps in multiple areas, the budget will never be balanced. We have to, among other things, raise more revenue, cut benefits, and reduce defense spending to have any hope of achieving a balanced budget. And even then it will be questionable if it can be done. And blowhards like Senator DeMint spouting complete bullshit and lying to everyone isn't going to help matters any.

For the record, the Federal government, in my self-interested experience, gets a great deal with respect to its employees. Yes, the average Federal worker gets paid more than the average non-Federal worker (although not anywhere near "twice what the average worker does"). We are also, on average, better educated and have more experience than our non-Federal counterparts. Anecdotally, I would make far more money in the private sector than I make as a Federal lawyer.

The fiscal year for the Federal government runs from October 1 to September 30. Each fiscal year is designated by the year it starts in. So the fiscal year that started last month on October 1, 2010, which will run until September 30, 2011 is fiscal year 2010.

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