Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Eagle, Uh, Let's Say "Sits"

Just to keep it clean. Add a letter, though, and you have the age-old military slang for payday. We imagine other federal employees also use the phrase from time to time. And the good news is that they can use it again on the fifteenth of this month, because the government shutdown has been averted.

We call this "good news" with some trepidation. It is good because it means that the decent and hard-working people who actually run things like the State Department, the Army and -- also important come the 15th -- the IRS can feed their families this month. It is also good, we suppose, because it spares the US, and especially its two governing political parties, some embarrassment. But then again, we're not sure that our parties deserve to be spared any embarrassment.

It's hard to know just what has been going on during these eleventh-hour negotiations. In this Times article, Harry Reid denies that things went to the last minute for the sake of drama; but "allies" of John Boehner accuse him of doing just that. Once the negotiations got to within a couple of billion dollars -- chicken feed at this level -- Reid declared that any deal was being held up by Republican intransigence on the social-policy riders; Boehner swore that "there is only one reason we don't have an agreement yet, and that is spending." Who is lying? Your guess is as good as ours.

But here's the scary-as-heck bottom line: it doesn't really matter. By which we do not mean that the truth doesn't matter -- it always does -- but rather that, at least apart from the social policy questions, this agreement doesn't matter. Because they are cutting $38 billion. Out of a $3.7 trillion budget proposal. As a reminder to the math-impaired, that is just over one percent of the total.

Yes, folks. Our fearless leaders were going to embarrass the nation, and impair its operations, for the sake of a few days worth of operating expenses. They are idiots.

Sure, the Republicans were asking for closer to $61 billion in cuts, so maybe a week.

This is nonsense. The 2008 budget deficit was $455 billion, and -- because a lot of our actual spending is outside the formal budget -- the national debt increased by $1,o17 billion. Just to break even, we need to close a trillion-plus dollar gap. Instead, our leaders are threatening to shut down the government over a few percents of that. The Economist has been all over this lately, referring to both the White House and Congressional budget proposals as "risible" and "mendacious." (Also, of the Republicans in particular, "a joke, and a cruel one.")

And here's something else the Economist said, almost in passing, a few weeks back: some of those cuts will have to come from the military. Not all, mind you. Realistically, not even most. The world is not, to put it mildly, a safe place. But to hear politicians talk (and especially the Republican ones), you would think we were still living in an age when we could afford to just give the brass a free pass. Or when it made sense to spend, as we do now, roughly as much on defense than every other nation in the world combined. (Off a GDP of roughly one-fifth of the world.) As the Atlantic put it recently, commenting on the trillion-dollar F-35 fighter plane program, even Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a champion of the aircraft, voiced his frustration: "The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of restraint."

The facts are these. Officially, military spending is about 20% of the federal budget. But that figure does not include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been paid for with special appropriations. Nor does it include veterans' health benefits and retirement, which are generous by most standards. Add it all up, and the War Resters' League (okay, not the most objective resource) estimates that 54% of our actual income taxes go to the military, both past and present. We at the Egg love and honor those guys, but ... come on. Fifty-four percent?

So, huzzah. We saved ourselves the equivalent of a few days' expenses. If we'd saved every penny that any of these heroes asked for, it would have amounted to almost exactly the cost of our last aircraft carrier -- the one we named for George Bush.

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