Have you ever brought your children to the store and had to fend off one request after another to buy something? One effective way to make them stop, and teach them a lesson, is to tell them they can have what they want – as long as they pay for it themselves.
You can see the wheels turn behind their eyes as they’re confronted with the goodies’ cost versus their limited resources. What seemed so important when someone else was paying for it no longer is worth emptying their own piggy bank.
Apparently, many in Washington have never taken their children shopping. Or maybe their parents never took them.
Consider the past couple of months. In December, Congress – mostly Republicans – passed and the president signed a $1.5 trillion tax cut. At the time, some said it would create enough economic growth that it would pay for itself. Even the president’s own budget proposal this week acknowledged that it won’t. Then last week, Congress passed and the president signed a budget package that will add $320 billion to deficits over the next decade. With interest, that number rises to almost $420 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
This was the best kind of “bipartisan” agreement for elected officials. Republicans got the spending increases for the military they wanted. Democrats got the spending increases they wanted for other domestic spending. They both got what they wanted in that today’s Americans get their goodies, but neither the parent nor the kid had to pay for them. It’s a win for everyone – except for tomorrow’s Americans who will be stuck with the credit card bill. But they don’t vote yet.
Arkansas is represented in Congress by Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman and Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill, Steve Womack, and Bruce Westerman. All six voted for the tax cut, and then five of them turned around and voted for the spending increase – the exception being Westerman.
A common refrain has been that the spending package increased funding for the military. If that’s a justification, then anything worth having is worth paying for yourself. That’s the lesson parents teach their kids at the store.
Unfortunately, that’s a lesson both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have not learned. Both grow government. Meanwhile, in the past few decades, many supposedly small government Republicans have subscribed to a theory known as “starve the beast.” The idea is that the way to shrink government is to feed it less money by cutting taxes.
But starving the beast has only increased its appetite. That's because there’s nothing in our system that ensures Congress will make the numbers add up. The Constitution doesn’t require it, and the voters don’t demand it. Instead, the beast can always be fattened through the labor of tomorrow’s taxpayers.
It may be that the only way to break our spending addiction is for us to have to pay for that spending ourselves. The late William Niskanen, chair of the Cato Institute small government think tank and a former advisor to President Reagan, studied the data from 1981 to 2005. He found that starving the beast does not work – that reducing federal revenues was associated with spending increases. When people can use other people’s money, they tend to get more stuff.
The national debt is now $20.5 trillion. The combination of tax cuts and spending increases makes it likely that budget deficits (what we add to that debt annually) will rise to $1 trillion starting next year. They grew to that size during the last recession. The difference is, this time it will happen in a time of prosperity. When the next recession hits, those deficits could blow way past $1 trillion.
Arkansas’ congressmen often say Washington has a spending problem, and they’re right about that. But maybe the cause of that problem is that we never have to empty our own piggy banks.
Maybe we should learn that lesson before our kids and grandkids are forced to empty theirs.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.