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It’s beginning to look like the sequester set forth in 2011 after the collapse of the so-called Supercommittee may actually become law on March 1. Without legislative action, defense spending and spending on Medicaid will each be cut by $47 billion this year. Naturally, quite a few people are upset about this. Even among those who genuinely want to see spending cuts, most do not want the cuts to affect them.
Congressmen are terrible about this. Most of them campaign (and are elected) on what they promise to do for their district, not their country, so they put their district first. This is especially evident on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, which is peopled by members with a significant military presence of some sort in their district. They typically see their duty, first and foremost, to protect whatever is in their district from defense cuts. Partially as a result of this, our military buys a variety of weapons systems, ships, various and sundry hardware it doesn’t want or need because of the exercise of power by the committees of jurisdiction.
Everyone understands that having an unemployment rate of nearly 8% causes untold damage — economic and otherwise — to our country. Millions of families struggle to get by, older workers take retirement earlier than they’d like at a lower benefit, and our government spends tens of billions of dollars more on food stamps, Social Security, and unemployment insurance benefits. Various state, county, and local governments have been especially hard hit by the great recession and the concomitant unemployment, and they find themselves struggling to provide basic services to residents.
The central issue at stake for our country is thus: How big should the government be and what should it be spending its money on?
The false belief that government spending creates jobs leads even those less beholden to special interests (like the executive branch) to favor bigger government. But in the long run, government spending does not “create” jobs. In fact, in the long run government spending that’s ineffective at improving the productivity of the economy tends to cost us jobs.
We can (and should) countenance government spending when that spending provides our society something we collectively value, such as national defense. Even so, we should always recognize that there is an opportunity cost to any form of spending, so we must make sensible decisions when deciding how much to spend on defense and in what ways to spend that money.
It’s perhaps too much to ask for congressmen to set aside the short-term exigencies of their district when making such decisions. That’s why now more than ever we need leadership from the executive branch.