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The politics of budget cuts

Few Americans devote any time to contemplating Dutch politics. But in a win that seems to American ears like a candidate for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Holland’s Liberals won on an austerity platform. Focused on rising debt, they promised not just to cut government spending generally, but specifically to raise the retirement age, cut healthcare and increase university tuitions. Can you imagine either American party campaigning on those promises?

Before Tea Party types start salivating, note that the Liberals “won” with just 20 percent of the vote, sharing top billing with the Social Democrats and an anti-Muslim party that wants to ban the Quran and tax the headscarves Muslim women wear.

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Even before the Dutch balloting, though, governments across Europe were considering budget cuts that would consign most American candidates to defeat. Of course, most of these countries have retirement ages that, even after being hiked, will be lower than ours and enjoy social welfare structures more encompassing than those in the U.S.

Whether austerity is right or wrong, an effective response to crisis or measures that will only exacerbate it are all subject to debate.

What strikes me, though, is the realism of the debate in Europe compared to that in the U.S. European voters seem to know that cutting government will create real pain. Americans go out of their way to deny it.

In our polls nationally, and in state after state, some 75 percent claim budgets could be balanced without either cutting important programs or raising taxes — that government can be cut without sacrifice on anyone’s part.

Lurking behind this rosy view are our old friends — waste, fraud and abuse. Americans believe that over 50 cents of every federal dollar is wasted. This fact alone accounts for much of the seeming incoherence in voters’ views on budget matters. If there were a special category of the budget, say, function 999, labeled waste, fraud and abuse, that accounted for 50 percent of the federal budget (or 40 percent of state budgets), then funding for vital programs could be increased, taxes cut and budgets balanced — all easily and simultaneously.

Yet no one in a position of knowledge or authority believes that. With the possible exception of Ron Paul, I doubt there is a single member of Congress, past or present, who believes in his heart of hearts that 50 cents of every federal dollar can simply be chalked up to waste, fraud and abuse.

So why do voters believe it? Perhaps because everybody — right, left and center — communicates that it’s true.

Since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have made electoral hay out of stigmatizing federal spending as going to “welfare queens.” “Waste, fraud and abuse” was their mantra. Gov. Schwarzenegger, now suffering through his own personal budget hell, is perhaps being forced to do penance for the absurd claim, made repeatedly in his winning campaign ads, that the way to get control of California’s budget was simply to audit the state’s books, implying that once the waste, fraud and abuse were eliminated, budget problems would disappear too.

The left is no less culpable. For decades, Ralph Nader raised money (and consciousness) by telling us that government spending was all perks and corporate welfare, while Sen. William Proxmire ridiculed science spending.

The media also play a role. Hardly a week goes by without a major story on government waste. One evening network news broadcast for years ran a series highlighting wasteful spending. No one would suggest that malfeasance be swept under the rug, but how many stories do you see about your tax dollars working effectively to produce positive ends?

For good reasons or bad, appropriate or not, however, politicians, interest groups and the media have created a citizenry that is out of touch with the realities of public spending. The result is an American political system unable to seriously contemplate austerity.


Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.