LESSONS LEARNED #76: “You know they’re governing against the will of the people when they play with the meaning of words to fool the people.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 28th, 2011

When is a Spending Cut an Increase in Spending? 

I have a riddle for you.  When is a spending cut an increase in spending?  “Well, that’s when…, hey, wait minute,” you say.  “That’s not a riddle.  That’s a paradox.  It’s like saying draw a square circle.  Or a name an objective journalist.  You just can’t do these things.  Just as a ‘cut’ can’t be an ‘increase’.  They are the very opposite of each other.”

Yeah, you would think.  Not that much of a riddle, then, is it?  For a true riddle is solvable.  Or should be.  Like, say, I have two coins that add up to thirty cents.  One of them isn’t a nickel.  What are they?  You’re a bit stymied, aren’t you.  Because a quarter and a nickel are the only two coins that add up to thirty cents.  So what’s the answer?  A quarter and a nickel.  “But you said one of them wasn’t a nickel,” you say.  “Right,” I say.  “One of them isn’t a nickel.  But the other one is.”

Now that’s a riddle.  Clever.  But solvable.  So now back to my first riddle.  When is a spending cut an increase in spending?  The answer is when you use baseline budgeting.

The Power of Baseline Budgeting

Politicians lie.  And they love to spend our money.  Put the two together and what do you get?  Baseline budgeting.   Which in a nutshell is government spending on autopilot.  Next year’s spending is this year’s spending plus a little extra.  That ‘little extra’ is the amount in all budget negotiations. 

For example, let’s say there is an item in the budget with a billion dollar budget amount this year.  That’s the baseline.  That’s where we start budgeting for next year.  Next year’s budget will be one billion dollars plus or minus that ‘extra amount’.

Typically they set this ‘extra amount’ to be equal to or greater than the rate of inflation.  And/or changes in legislation for that budgetary item.  Let’s say there is no change in the program legislation.  And they set the program’s budget so that next year’s budget equals this year’s budget plus 10%.  So this budget item will be $1 billion this year.  And $1.1 billion next year.  Projecting this out for 10 years, this will automatically add $1.36 billion to this budgetary item.

In Baseline Budgeting a Spending Cut is an Increase in Spending

A couple of things should jump out at you.  For one you see why government programs never die.  Once they add them to the budget they stay in the budget.  And grow.  Always.  Forever.  And the bigger the starting budget amount the bigger the program will grow over time.  Again, automatically.  So you can see why baseline budgeting has been a godsend to Big Government.  It guarantees the growth of government.  Now.  And forever.

Now let’s look at a spending cut.  Let’s say spending is getting out of control.  Deficits are growing.  (As hard as that is to imagine.)  So there’s a budget deal to ‘cut’ the budget by 2%.  But this is a 2% cut in baseline budgeting.  So we’re not reducing the budget amount.  We’re only reducing the amount above the baseline.  Spending was going to increase 10% the following year.  But with this 2% cut, that 10% increase becomes only an 8% increase. 

This is where the language play comes in.  The budget is increased by 8%.  But in baseline budgeting it is a 2% decrease.  Instead of increasing the budget by $100 million, they only increase it by $80 million.  The budget is increased by $80 million but they count it as a $20 million cut.  Because future spending was cut $20 million.  So it’s a cut even though no spending was actually cut.  Spending still increases.  Just not as much as previously budgeted.  And that’s the wonderful world of baseline budgeting.  Where a spending cut increases spending.

The Government Shutdown of 1995 and 1996 

When CBO takes these projections out to 10 years it makes these spending ‘cuts’ look draconian.  As originally budgeted, this item would have been increased by $1.36 billion over 10 years.  Because of the reduction in the size of future spending, it will only increase $1 billion over 10 years.  But instead of calling this a $1 billion increase (which it is), they will call it a draconian cut of $359 million (which it isn’t).  Instead of saying this budget item will increase by 99.9% (which it will), they say it will be cut by 26.4% (which it obviously won’t).  Now politicians understand this baseline doublespeak.  But the average American doesn’t.  They hear ’26.4%’ cut in some program for single mothers or hungry children and think what vicious, heartless bastards Republicans are.

And this was the stage for the government shutdown of 1995 and 1996Bill Clinton campaigned as a moderate in the 1992 presidential election.  After winning, though, he governed as a tax and spend liberal.  The people expressed their disapproval and gave both houses of Congress to the Republicans in the 1994 midterm electionsNewt Gingrich became Speaker of the House.  Gingrich and the Republicans saw their election as a mandate to stop the out of control government spending.  And that’s what they were trying to do in the budget battles beginning in 1995.

The Republicans were trying to reduce the rate of growth of government spending per the will of the people.  Spending would still increase.  But at a slower rate.  Clinton, though, fought against the will of the people.  Using baseline budgeting newspeak to mislead the people.  Clinton called these reductions in growth rates draconian spending cuts.  Even though there were no real cuts in spending.  But being a tax and spend liberal, he wasn’t about to cut the rate of growth.  So they squared off in budget battle.  It all came to a head when the government hit its borrowing limit.  The Republicans tried to get some spending cuts in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling.  Clinton refused.  Unable to pay its bills, the government shutdown.  And the United States collapsed.

Baseline Budgeting helps you Govern against the Will of the People

Not really.  Few people even noticed the shutdown.  Everyone still went to work.  Collected their pay (unless you worked in a national park).  And life went on.  Social Security checks went out.  Interest on the national debt was paid.  The credit rating on U.S. sovereign debt remained AAA.  So there was little damage.  Clinton came out okay from the crisis.  Newt Gingrich not so well.  Many believe that this helped Clinton’s reelection in 1996.  Of course a lot of that had to do with Dick Morris.  Who pulled Clinton to the center.  And became the moderate the people thought they elected.

Clinton may have won reelection, but he paid a price.   Republicans still held both houses of Congress.  Who ultimately won in the long-run.  Their Balanced Budget Act of 1997 did cut the growth rate of government spending.  And then the dot-com boom of the late Nineties produced a windfall of tax revenue that, with the ‘spending cuts’ of the Balanced Budget Act, actually balanced the budget.  For a few years.  But it turned out that the dot-com boom was actually a dot-com bubble.  Thanks to a lot of irrational exuberance.  And the bubble popped.  With the resulting recession tax revenue fell.  And those balanced budgets were no more.

Unwilling to concede to the will of the people, Clinton played with the meaning of words.  Called a spending increase a spending cut.  Because he knew the average American didn’t understand baseline budgeting.  And politicians continue to this day scaring people about draconian spending cuts where there are no spending cuts.  Not in the world of baseline budgeting.  Which makes it easy for them to continue to govern against the will of the people.  As they continue to do.  As they always have done.  Because nothing is more important than growing government.  And spending as much of our money as possible before we get a chance to spend it ourselves.

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