The Right Opinion

Cultivating Our Bewitchment

By George Will · Dec. 6, 2012

WASHINGTON – Even Jonathan Swift, who said promises and pie crusts are made to be broken, might have marveled at the limited shelf life of Barack Obama’s promise of a “balanced” deficit-reduction plan – substantial spending cuts to accompany revenue increases. Obama made short shrift of that promise when he demanded $1.6 trillion in immediate tax increases and mostly unspecified domestic cuts. He also promised to cut $800 billion from 10 years of war spending that will end in two years, which is like “cutting” $800 billion by deciding not to build a ski resort on Mars.

Year after year, the Democratic-controlled Senate, ignoring the law, refuses to pass budgets. Year after year, Washington makes big government cheap by charging Americans only $6 for every $10 of government services, borrowing the difference. And the biggest purchaser of U.S. government debt is not China but … the U.S. government, largely through the Federal Reserve. Yet what supposedly is horrifying is a sequester that would cut less than 3 percent of federal spending over the next decade?

Or horrible Grover Norquist. Although a surfeit of numbers are being bandied, a pertinent one is missing – the number of legislators who have pledged to Norquist not to raise taxes. The number is: Zero. All pledges have been to voters. Progressives lament the public’s distrust of the political class, while urging many members of it to treat their promises as pie crusts.

Given progressives' “principled” refusal to countenance entitlement reforms, the principal drivers of the fiscal imbalance will not be untouched even by raising, from 65, the age of Medicare eligibility. In 1965, the year this program was created, the average life expectancies of men and women at age 65 were another 13.5 and 18 years respectively. Today they are 19 and 21, and rising. Given modern medical – especially pharmacological – marvels, longevity often involves living with several chronic ailments that might have been fatal a generation ago. For liberals, however, no demographic or scientific changes need be accommodated.

Democrats insist the manufactured unpleasantness due Jan. 1 is a crisis of insufficient revenues. But Jeffrey Dorfman, a University of Georgia economics professor, thinks arithmetic says otherwise. Writing for RealClearMarkets, he says possible tax increases and spending cuts would reduce the current deficit by less than a third, leaving a deficit larger than any run by any president not named Obama.

At the end of the Clinton administration, when the budget was balanced (largely by revenues generated by commercialization of the Internet), annual federal spending was $1.94 trillion and revenue was $2.10 trillion. “Adjusting for inflation and population growth since the start of 2001,” Dorfman writes, “today’s equivalents would be $2.77 trillion and $3.00 trillion,” and a $230 billion surplus.

What is to blame for today’s huge imbalance? The Bush tax cuts? The recession? Obama’s spending? Dorfman answers yes, yes and yes – but that “spending is the main culprit” because: Today federal revenue is $2.67 trillion (slightly less than “the Clinton equivalent”) and spending is $3.76 trillion, so we are spending $987 billion more than we would be if we had just increased Bill Clinton’s last budget for inflation and population growth.

“Philosophy,” said the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” In unphilosophic Washington, bewitchment is cultivated. Notice how quickly and thoroughly a phrase used intermittently for more than 50 years – “fiscal cliff” – was made ubiquitous by one of Washington’s least flamboyant speakers (Ben Bernanke). This melodramatic language encourages the supposition that plunging off the (metaphorical) cliff is unthinkable. But as this column has hitherto noted, the cliff’s consequences – huge tax increases and defense cuts – are progressivism’s agenda. And Obama needs to restock the pantry where he stores his excuses for his economic policy failures. The tax increases would augment his policy of enlarging government’s control of the nation’s economic output, and he could henceforth blame continuing economic anemia on Republicans who supposedly should have averted what progressives desire.

The shrillness of “cliff” talk bewitches minds that should be skeptical about the supposed point of all this – deficit reduction. Conservatives, many of whom are such because they understand government’s metabolic urge to metastasize, believe that spending cuts will be chimeras.

Given Obama’s “principled” stance against “obdurate” Republicans, the cliff can be dodged only by imposing tax policies that further darken the nation’s future, and government spending would continue to rise even under the sequester-imposed “austerity.” More bewitchment of intelligence by language.

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

4 Comments

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Uncle George, you are making good sense, and I keep having to go to the dictionary. I think I understand the gist of your blog: {2006 to 2016} may be wriiten in history books, as full-blown SOCIALISM decade, where gov spending vastly outpaced revenues. Subsidies, bailouts, crony cap, entitlements, and fish wrapping, were engaged in by neo-marx renegades. If only this were a nightmare & not REALITY--watch out for the chimeras-'she-monsters', like Pelosi!!Yes, conservatives are bewitched and befuddled.

Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 6:07 AM

JJStryder in Realville said:

Increased longivity? Obamacare will take care of that pesky problem.

Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 10:35 AM

richard ryan in Lamar,Missouri replied:

JJ, you`re saying the exact same thing I`ve been saying for some time now. The simplest way to solve the SS and Medicare problem is to kill off a few million elderly and disabled persons. Solyent Greene is coming to a neighborhood near you shortly. The Senate managed to fight off CRPD, temporarily. However; it is like the fabled zombie, it`s only temporarily down. That monster will rear it`s ugly head again sooner than later. For those who are not aware of what CRPD is, it is a UN requirement that all children born handicapped must be registered with the UN. Population control anyone?

Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 12:44 PM

richard ryan in Lamar,Missouri said:

Another monster we should be watching is Agenda 21, another UN population control scheme.

Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 12:46 PM