When the Federal Government Tightens Its Belt, Who Feels The Squeeze?

Last year John Boehner said the federal government should learn a lesson from cash-strapped families: “It’s time for government to tighten their belts and show the American people that we ‘get’ it.” Paul Krugman points out that in last night’s speech Barack Obama said the same thing: “[F]amilies across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.”

The actual policy Obama is proposing is far more defensible than this metaphor. But I think it does real long-term damage to the country’s political proposal to hear a nominally progressive politician echoing this particular analogy. One thing that’s wrong with it is the basic Keynesian point that it’s counterproductive to have the public sector tighten its belt at the same time the private sector does. But the larger issue here is that the whole metaphor of belt-tightening is a slander against the public sector.

In the real world, after all, the vast majority of federal spending goes to actual programmatic expenses. If the government reduces outlays, that means smaller Social Security checks. Or fewer treatments covered by Medicare. Or fewer troops deployed to Afghanistan. Or smaller Pell Grants. Or less highway repairs. Or larger class sizes. Or less food for poor families. There’s not some entity out there called “the government” that’ll get sad if “belt-tightening” reduces overall federal outlays. The underlying presumption of the belt-tightening metaphor is a fundamentally right-wing and inaccurate vision of how the public sector operates, in which the money is being wasted at lavish banquets or fancy palaces or the dread fatcat librarians or something.

That’s just not how it works. If people want the government to not do some of the stuff it does, or do it to a lesser extent, that’s fine. There are programs that I believe should be cut or ended. But we shouldn’t imagine that that amounts to “the government” tightening its belt. When you cut a program it’s program beneficiaries whose belts tighten, and most program expenditure is on national security or retirement security for senior citizens.