Some silver linings amid the mess in Washington

In the wake of the unsuccessful Republican-led fight to defund Obamacare, and the shutdown of (a small part) of the federal government, many of my Republican friends are in despair and my Democrat friends are chortling with glee.

If you live in a world where you derive pleasure or become lugubrious because of the short-term tactical blunders of your friends or opponents, this reaction is very understandable.

I tend not to live in such a world. Make no mistake: my goal is to promote policies and ideas that decrease the size and power of government. This is the only solution to our long-term economic and societal problems. As such, I tend to look at things from a long-term perspective.

I don’t really care if the Republicans are well-positioned for 2014 or 2016, if all we are going to get from the Republicans is more Bush/McCain/Chris Christie, etc, etc, etc. I don’t see how that will resolve anything important.

If, however, we are creating the long-term conditions for a significant decrease in the size of government, then there are reasons to be optimistic.

With that in mind, let’s look at some (small) reasons for optimism.

First, some charts.

Thanks to some very small cuts in spending and the sequester, federal spending is actually doing a bit better the last few years.


The spending cuts have improved the federal deficit picture in the short term.


Notes: before you get all excited about how Obama has “improved the deficits,” please note that every Obama budget asked for huge increases in spending, and the budgets were unanimously defeated. In addition, please note that the deficit is a massive problem that is ruining the economy, causing widespread poverty and destroying the American middle class. So, please do not get sanguine about this situation. Also, please note that the deficit really gets out of control 10-15 years from now if we do not do anything about long-term spending, ie spending on Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.

But, and let me emphasize this point, we really have done something to stop the runaway train of the Obama/Democrat desire to spend more on useless government projects. There is a lot more to be done, but at least we have taken a step in the right direction.

So, here is where the good news comes in.

Silver lining number one: the next sequester spending cut comes in January 2014. This is not an insignificant cut. Spending is, by law, to be cut by $50 billion in 2014 after a cut of $70 billion in 2013. This out of a total discretionary budget of about $1 trillion. These are the first real cuts in discretionary spending of any size since the 1950s. Again, these cuts are not anywhere near what I would like to see, but they are definitely steps in the right direction.

Silver lining number two: There will be more discussions about the budget and the debt ceiling in three months. There is still time for the hapless Republicans to get their acts together and come up with an actual strategy where they accomplish something.

Silver lining number three: There is a chance that the something that may be accomplished would be some kind of entitlement reform. There is a decent chance that the retirement age may be raised and that there may be other small changes in Medicare and Social Security that truly would help the long-term deficit.

Silver lining number four: Obamacare is, as I predicted multiple times, a dismal failure. The Democrats own this failure. How this plays out in the 2014 and/or 2016 election is beyond my skill set, but the message that “the government providing health insurance” is a good thing is increasingly seen as a joke.

Silver lining number five: The feeling that the government is failing (see Obamacare) plus the NSA, IRS and various other scandals is creating a very healthy anti-government wave. How this plays out in terms of politics is difficult for me to foresee, but I am encouraged to see young people increasingly regard the government as the problem rather than the solution. This gives me some reasons for optimism for the future.

Silver lining number six: On a local and state level, the most competent governments are increasingly those run by small government conservatives and the least competent governments are those run by the union-controlled big government types. People see that on a local level voluntarism and small, focused governments can accomplish things, whereas huge, overweening government lead to debt and bankruptcy (witness Detroit).

All in all, there are reasons for optimism amid all of the negative trends in society these days. So, buck up people. There is a chance things might get slightly better.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

21 thoughts on “Some silver linings amid the mess in Washington

  1. I really want to believe Silver Lining #2, but I’m going to have to really pep myself up about it. I’m not sure the GOP has a plan, ever.

  2. (Edited) The only decent years (in terms of trends and rates of change are the Eisenhower, Clinton, and Obama years. Everyone else (Republican and Democrat) increased federal outlays per capita on their watch.

    I don’t doubt that if the Tea Party types got put in charge in any meaningful way that they would be capable of killing government. But in doing so they would kill a lot of other things – such as the environment, a lot of people, the economy, and our relationship with many of our country’s allies.

    The US already has one of the smallest governments per capita of any industrialized nation in the entire world. There is a practical limit to how small a large complicated/interconnected society can make its government be. I agree with you it could be smaller than it is, but there is a role for choice in this matter. There is nothing inherently virtuous about a small government, governments should be the size the citizens of a given nation vote them to be. If the majority of people would like to see a larger versus a smaller safety net, or more investment in education or public infrastructure there is nothing to a priori say that is “wrong”.

  3. It’s not sufficient that young people see the government failing. They need to see that it is failing because it is attempting the impossible, not because the wrong people are in charge. Given the amazing ability of Democrats to look much better than they are, and Republicans to look worse than they are, there is a danger that young people disenchanted with government will make the mistake of thinking the problem is that there are too many Republicans involved.

  4. These are great graphs. Thanks, Geoff. Do you have one that displays Federal Outlays as a percentage of GDP during that time period? That would be interesting to see. Also, as John S. Harvey points out, it would also be interesting to see how we compare to other wealthy industrialized nations.

  5. Mike, there are literally hundreds of graphs here:

    It is actually not true that we have one of the lowest government spends per capita of industrial nations. This used to be true in the 1980s and 1990s, but with the Bush/Obama and local government spendathon we are in the middle of industrial countries. Exact comparisons are difficult because some countries do not have local, state and federal spending like we do. Just to cite a few examples, we spend a lot more per capita than Switzerland and Australia and about the same as Canada and Estonia. Most of the Nordic companies spend more, but the most successful countries in the world in terms of growth (Singapore and Hong Kong spend half of what we do per capita). You can look at the chart here:

  6. The fact of the matter is the republican establishment, the Washington DC media class, the various NGOs, etc. etc. all depend on the financial engine of DC to keep pumping. Any threat to that is literally an existential threat, and spells calamity for the country — because in their minds what’s negative for them is bad for the country at large as they imagine the effects being repeated in other industries.

    Plus there is just some old fashion selfish greed.

    Some say the answer is to remove money from politics, others say the answer is voting for smaller government. I say both of these can never happen. Money will always be drawn one way or another to the areas it can buy and receive financial influence. And voting will always be abused increasingly at the margins until it consumes the whole in areas where people (or interest groups) have incentive to get gain from the political process.

    Chew on that for a minute, groups that are organized to get gain manipulating the system. Where have we heard that in the BoM? What do we think will happen to some groups in power when they can no longer get gain through “legitimate” means? Doesn’t bode will if the Book of Mormon is a guide.

    The only solution is dramatically reducing what government can actually do. Not voting against things or scaling back programs, but actually binding government through amendment or other process. There is no other way. Anything else will continue to creep and encroach liberty.

    The tea party types would be better to put their effort into an amendment to reduce the scope of federal authority and power with regard to the states than they would be to try to elect their kind in congress. And in reality, if you’re focused on an amendment process, it will help drive votes in that direction anyway. This would be more of an offensive strategy, rather than a defensive one, which merely hopes to elect a few people to stand in the way of the progressive bulldozer movement.

    But even having said all of that. Without a god-fearing and virtuous, charitable people our nation is doomed. Increased personal liberty, without being accompanied by at least the aspiration for virtue and the pure love of Christ will lead to a debauched and ruinous nation.

  7. The biggest problem is that Americans are intoxicated with bribes from the government. Everyone wants smaller government, but only want cut the things that do not affect them. This is why we still haven’t fixed Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security. This is why seniors believe that they earned Medicare Part D (they didn’t), and will fight tooth and nail to keep it.

    It will require a major catastrophe to move us to smaller government. Obviously, the housing and financial collapses of 2008 were not a big enough catastrophe, and so we’ll need something much much bigger. Only when people are convinced that socialistic ideas will not turn things around, will they risk returning to concepts of freedom and self-sustenance and self-rule.

    It required a total economic collapse to end the Soviet Union’s powerful socialist grip. And still, we see 2 decades later that many in the area want to return to some form of socialized structure that protects them from themselves.

    The question is, how much further down the road of socialism and economic suicide must we go before either Americans learn the lesson or the lesson is forcefully imposed by nature?

    Neither Democrats nor Republicans have learned it. They both love to spend money and buy constituents’ votes. They focused on Obamacare as a tactic, and lost. Why? Because they were shaking the leaves, rather than chopping at the root of the problem. They needed to be focused on the root problem of economic collapse, not just one little piece. Let the full story guide their strategy, because they will not fix anything otherwise.

  8. Speaking of amendments (per Chris), I recommend “The Liberty Amendments” (2013) by Mark R. Levin, who posits that we, as citizens, are underutilizing the Constitution as our Founders had intended, including amendments toward limiting government spending and taxation, and limiting big government. Good read.

  9. Funny, Government as health insurance works just fine up here in Canada. It has it’s bumps but when my four-month old developed a disease I’d never heard of, her care did not cripple our family.

  10. Thanks for the links, Geoff. Very interesting stuff. The funny thing is, everybody seems to assume I’m some ultra-lib but that’s not true at all. I agree with Chris, too: We need a federal balanced-budget amendment and a reassertion of the 10th Amendment. Why on earth can’t the states at least have full control over their healthcare systems?? Think of all the interesting experimentation that could take place, and eventually we’d figure out what works best.

  11. Geoff, I agree with you and Beinart, that the sequester as the the new normal is a huge win for conservatives. BUT, amazingly, very few conservatives I know or have read agree. Especially congressional Republicans! Because admitting this fact would have to lead to admitting that the Dems really were compromising by submitting a clean CR *at sequester levels*. And doing that would have squelched their outrage – especially all the Obama-as-unreasonable-dictator talk.

    I don’t really care if the Republicans are well-positioned for 2014 or 2016, if all we are going to get from the Republicans is more Bush/McCain/Chris Christie, etc, etc, etc. I don’t see how that will resolve anything important.

    On this point, though, I have to disagree with your premise. The downgrade in public support for Republicans because of the shutdown is a direct result of the tactics of so called small government conservatives like Cruz – which actually improves the chances of guys like Christie. Daniel McCarthy says is better than I can in his piece, Why the Shutdown Is a Disaster for Small-Government Principles.

    Reducing and restructuring government is going to take time and careful planning, but what we see from the Republicans—abetted by certain activist groups and entertainers who feed off over-emotional listeners, viewers, and donors—is a party whose leadership and record in power is big government and whose committed small-government faction is crippling rather than augmenting its appeal to the country as a whole.

    Your silver linings are about to fade away (either by a Christie, a Clinton or a loss of House seats in between) if conservatives don’t change tactics. Stop supporting the Cruz (and palin) demagoguery and start funding reasonable guys like Rand Paul, who said:

    “If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul said. “Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs.”

    “The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white,” he said, “but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino.”

  12. Rame, yes.

    Adam G, I am so, so sorry. It appears that nobody thought about people like you when designing Obamacare. Or maybe they did and simply don’t care?

    Tiger, yes.

    PDOE. The Canadian systems and the U.S. systems simply can’t be compared. Saying that the Canadian system is superior is a waste of time because such a system could never happen in the U.S. given the mess we have made of the health care sector.

    MikeinWeHO, love you man.

    Christian J, if you praise Rand Paul you are alright in my book. Totally agree with his point on the failed war on drugs. In fact, I agree with Rand Paul on almost everything (I am more moderate on immigration and abortion than he is, but otherwise…)

  13. Geoff, I bring up Rand Paul because he seems like a principles and persuasive libertarian. Forget that I’ve never voted for a Republican in my life, this guy isn’t your run a the mill politician. Ted Cruz, on the other hand…

  14. Thank you Geoff, for putting a rare positive spin on your own political perspective. My own observation is that reality is rarely as gloomy as the party out of power likes to project. Nor is it as rosy as the party in power likes to project. There are always silver linings to be found if you just open your eyes.

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