Dec 23, 2010

"Wasteful spending" is neither "wasteful" nor "spending." Discuss.

A couple of days ago Senator Tom Coburn released his "Wastebook 2010," which he called a "new oversight report...that highlights some of the most egregious examples of government waste in 2010." He intended the report - 82 pages, 456 footnotes - to demonstrate that "Congress continues to find new and extravagant ways to waste tax dollars."

Instead, it demonstrates much of what's wrong with the argument that the federal government is tremendously bloated and that cutting "unnecessary" programs would go a long way towards reducing the deficit.

The first problem, of course, is that there's a ton of disagreement about just what constitutes an "unnecessary" program. For instance, many of the things to which Coburn points actually seem like a great use of my tax dollars. Funding for the XVIII International Aids Conference in Vienna, which Coburn calls a "European Junket," comes in at #14 on his list and cost taxpayers $465,000 (about the amount, incidentally, that one millionaire protected by the Republican Party should be paying in taxes). Fostering international collaboration in AIDS research and treatment sounds pretty important to me. He also attacks funding for studies of the spread and treatment of HIV in Vietnam (#21; $442,340) and South Africa (#34; 823,200). For less than $1.5 million dollars, figuring out how to slow the spread of AIDS in those two countries would be a bargain, I think. He complains that the U.S. spent $2.6 million to help train Eastern European legislators (#28), aiming for "parliamentary strengthening." If we like stability in the countries of the former Soviet Union - and judging from today's nukes treaty and our interest in propping up the government of Georgia, we do - then that sounds like a pretty good deal to me. I could go on but, luckily for you, I won't.

On the other hand, there are lots of ways I would reallocate our federal dollars if I could. I'd start with our intelligence agencies which, according to an amazing feat of journalism in the Washington Post this summer, now number more than 1,200, not counting the 2,000 private corporations with which the government contracts to do intelligence work. We spend at least $75 billion on intelligence every year, and the Department of Homeland Security has given state and local law enforcement agencies $31 billion since 2003 to fight terrorism - numbers that dwarf the total amount Coburn's targeted projects cost the federal government. The 2010 defense budget was $663.8 billion dollars. I'd like to see a few of those billions - or a few tens or hundreds - chopped off. Again, I could go on, but the point is that different people have different spending priorities - especially, say, me and Tom Coburn.

The much bigger issue, though, is that Coburn's "wasteful" spending is nearly insignificant in the context of the federal budget. The 100 items on his list add up to about $11.7 billion. The federal government's total spending in FY 2010 was just over $3.72 trillion. That means that the 100 most ridiculous and unimportant things Coburn could find totaled about .3% of the federal budget.

The federal deficit has been over $1 trillion a year for the last couple of years and will continue to be that large for the foreseeable future, or at least until we have a significant economic recovery. Cutting out $11.7 billion of that, or twice or ten times that much, would still leave us with many hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue shortfall to overcome. It is going to take a lot more than trimming around the edges to cut the deficit, and the only real way to do it in a sustainable, humane, and civilized (and I do mean that literally) is to start raising more revenue. Yes, that's right, people, I said it - we need to raise taxes.

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