When it comes to the issue of making true cuts in government spending, I’m a bit of a fatalist. In my view, the only way things will change is if we suffer a financial disaster on the scale of 9/11 as we collapse under the weight of the welfare state.
Pork projects such as the “Bridge to Nowhere” make great headlines, but at the end of the day the only way we’re going to reduce the size of government is by making serious changes to mandatory spending on entitlements. Mandatory spending already accounts for a majority of the budget, and by 2016 it’s projected to swallow up nearly two-thirds, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The failure of a relatively modest Social Security reform last year, with a determined president and Republican control of Congress, left me completely pessimistic about the chances of entitlement reform. While, in polls, people will say that they want smaller government and fear the Social Security crisis in general, when it comes to actually cutting programs that they like, they are opposed.
Trying to cut entitlement spending goes against human nature, which is focused on the short-term. A person who eats too much knows that it may lead to health problems down the road, but those potential health problems aren’t yet real, while cheeseburgers, fries, and hot fudge sundaes are delicious and offer immediate gratification. Fiscal conservatives showing Americans charts projecting what’s going to happen 10 or 20 or 40 years from now is not as compelling as media stories about seniors being thrown into the gutter.
I don’t see that dynamic changing until an economic disaster results from entitlement spending. At that point, entitlement reform no longer becomes just a responsible long-term thing to do, but it enters Americans’ short-term radar, just as terrorism did after 9/11.
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