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Cutting in the worst possible way

Economist Thomas Sowell recalls an old classroom exercise that explains much of what’s going on as Washington “cuts” federal government spending by 2.4 percent, as required by the sequester.

(“Cuts” is in quotation marks because the Congressional Budget Office reports that, even with the sequester, federal spending will still increase to $5.9 trillion by 2023 — an annual rate of increase in excess of 5 percent.)

In a recent column, Mr. Sowell recalled that “Back in my teaching days … one of the things I liked to ask the class to imagine (was) a government agency with only two tasks: 1) building statues of Benedict Arnold and 2) providing life-saving medications to children. If this agency’s budget were cut, what would it do?”

The answer, of course, is that it would cut back on medications for children. Why? “Because that would be what was most likely to get the budget cuts restored. If they cut back on building statues of Benedict Arnold, people might ask why they were building statues of Benedict Arnold in the first place.”

In the real world, we see the same logic applied all the time. Threaten to cut local government, and the city or county warns of police and firefighter layoffs.

“There may be all sorts of wasteful boondoggles that could have been cut instead,” Mr. Sowell explains, “but that would not produce the public alarm that reducing police protection and fire protection can produce. And public alarm is what can get budget cuts restored.”

Similarly, the Defense Department announced Friday that it was axing July’s Red Flag air combat exercises and the next graduate-level Weapons School for pilots at Nellis Air Force Base — a move unprecedented in the 66-year history of the U.S. Air Force. With defense-related expenditures now running between $1 trillion and $1.4 trillion per year, the idea the Pentagon could find no place less crucial to cut would be laughable were it not for the vital importance of such training to America’s defense.

Needless to say, the nature of these cuts has produced just the response from the Nevada congressional delegation which the cynics at the Pentagon doubtless hoped for — panicked calls to restore the cuts.

In fact, the sequester cuts are just a start on what’s needed. Uncle Sam borrows 40 cents of every dollar he spends — most of it from the Federal Reserve, which just prints new dollars out of thin air — and that’s unsustainable.

But the notion that there’s nowhere else to cut is absurd.

Yes, making combat operations a top priority makes sense in the short run. No one wants to leave troops in combat without fuel, ammunition or tactical support.

But America has now been at war, somewhere, for 22 years, all without a single congressional declaration. That’s more than a technicality — a Declaration of War would require that someone specify who the enemy is, and how we’ll know when we can declare victory and come home.

More than one responsible commentator has wondered whether such endless low-grade imperial wars aren’t creating more enemies than they kill. Is there no foreign intervention that couldn’t be wound down and de-funded, no wasteful weapons development boondoggle we couldn’t do without?

America currently accounts for 39 percent of all the world’s defense spending, more than China, Russia, Britain, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Italy and Brazil combined.

Yes, the sequester hits the military harder than the oft-stated 2.4 percent, precisely because such “mandatory” programs as Medicaid, Social Security, welfare and food stamps were exempted, leaving discretionary defense spending to absorb $42.7 billion in cuts — a 7.9 percent reduction.

But whatever happened to the post-Cold War peace dividend? We’re spending more than four times what the Chinese spend on their military, more than seven times what the Russians now spend, and we can’t find anywhere to cut but in the highly visible — and vital — air defense training programs at Nellis?

“The cuts that will actually take place this year are barely over one percent of the $3.6 trillion federal budget,” notes Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb, writing at Realclearpoltics.com. “The fiscal cliff fix increased federal taxes roughly $160 billion a year. The Sandy relief appropriation increased federal spending by $60 billion. And suddenly there’s panicked concern about the macroeconomic effects of sequestration cuts of $44 billion?”

Only because panic and outrage are precisely what these cuts have been designed to create.

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