Spending Paranoia

James Fallows reader DB gives voice to something I’ve heard from a number of conservatives:

I’m writing to provide a Republican perspective on the debt ceiling negotiations. I think many of [these] insights into the process are helpful. One thing that frustrates me, though, about your and other commenters, is a failure to acknowledge that tax increases are practically immediate, while spending cuts are in the future – often far into the future; I believe the much-touted 3-to-1 cuts-to-increases ratio proposed by Obama contemplated the spending cuts taking place over 12 years. Thinking such cuts will actually take place is naive. What Republicans fear is a deal that says “3-to-1” but ends up being “zero-to-one.” I have yet to hear a mainstream commentator acknowledge this concern.

This reminds me of nothing so much as the conservative view that the success of mixed economy welfare states in the Cold War proved that we should abandon mixed economy welfare state policies in favor of laissez faire. In this case, the view is that in the past arbitrary spending caps have failed to restrain spending, so we ought to become really dogmatic in our insistence on arbitrary spending caps.

My view is that the existence of this kind of paranoia about the implementation of future spending cuts ought to push us in the other direction. Decisions about the future will necessarily be made in the future. There is no present-day economic problem that can be laid at the feet of high current levels of federal spending. So let’s not sweat the 2020s. Maybe we’ll invent some super-useful but expensive technology that merits giant spending. Who knows? Most likely, voters will continue to demand certain kinds of public services and that will cost money. One such service is health care. Systematic reform of the exceptionally high cost structure of American health care would, fairly reliably, lead to a lower level of future spending. Just saying “cross my heart / hope to die / stick a needle in my eye / public sector health care spending will be lower” doesn’t achieve much of anything.