Working as a buyer to the public one of the constant requests I receive is for a standard price I will pay for product. This seems a reasonable request: customers want to know what they will receive and a standard price seems fair. In fact were I to say, for instance, I will pay $1 per item that would be fair. Every item and customer would receive equal amounts for their product. However, the truth is that not all product is the same, and this disparity would result in more harm to my customer than it would seem at first blush. If I pay $1 per item then I would pay that for an item worth 50 cents and an item worth 50 dollars. It is actually in my customer’s best interest that I pay less for the item worth 50 cents and more for the item worth 50 dollars. And so this is what we continue to do despite the large number of well-intentioned customers who suggest we do otherwise.
I bring this up because I was thinking about this daily dilemma while reading the myriad responses to the government sequester that is set to kick in tonight. We need to cut spending so what could be more fair than an across the board cut of a certain percentage my well-intentioned friends argue. Like the daily discussion with customers demanding to know the standard payment, this sounds good and fair but in reality is neither.
The sequester is a dumb cutting process. There is no thought or planning behind an across the board cut. It means that everyone must cut regardless of need. This means that every government agency must make cuts. Yes it means that many government organizations that have not provided a comparable benefit will be cut. It also means education must be cut. It also means the military must be cut. it means that some who should be receiving less will get less. It also means that many agencies that need more investment will receive less. This is what it means to have an across the board cut. In a struggling economic environment we do not need dumb cuts that take away money from already money starved systems just to prove a point. What we need are smart cuts. We need to cut the agencies that we costing us money while providing little or no service benefits; but we also need to be reallocating some of that money to the agencies that provide good services to the community. A smart cutting process would trim in the right places.
The sequester may be fair but fairness is not always right. Yes it seems fair to cut everything the same way; yet like paying a dollar for something worth 50, this is fair but not right. For many of my friends (and the richest Americans living in the suburbs) these cuts will simply amount to any number of inefficiencies in daily life: longer lines at the airport and DMV, longer flight delays, larger class sizes, higher fees, higher tuitions, etc. These will be annoying but not unsolvable. Yet for the millions of Americans who depend on government services for real help (medical care, food, rent, daycare, etc) even a small cut can be traumatic and yes, apocalyptic. If you are surviving on the margins with precious inches between you and the cliff’s edge you cannot afford to give up even the tiniest inch of ground. To insist that the least advantaged of us suffer so that the most well off do not have to suffer more is not fair and is not right.
Last the sequester is not necessary nor wise. When one is facing a deficit there are two ways to deal with the issue. One can cut what is being spent; but one can also seek to increase what is coming in. My Republican friends like to complain about taxes; but in reality our taxes are at the lowest levels in a long time. Corporate debt is lower than in years. Personal debt is actually lower than in years. The wealthiest members of our society are sitting on higher cash reserves than they have in a long time. With this in mind, It is not wrong to ask the wealthy to invest a little more into the country that has given them so much. We can alleviate some of the pain with smart increases and by rewarding corporations and individuals who invest in their communities. All this is not to say that cuts are not needed; but what we need are smart cuts to underperforming agencies, investment in underfunded agencies, and increased investment from those who can afford to give up a handful more.
We have tried the sequester before. The economy just got worse and it was not until pressure from the middle class led to the tax reforms of 1991 that our country was set up for the boom time that was the rest of the 1990s. They say those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and it seems that in America we stink at history. Regardless if you are currently all bluster about this being a good idea now; don’t complain when the cuts come in seemingly stupid ways tomorrow. For now my only hope is that having experienced the stupidity of the sequester maybe America will be willing to actually consider real governance tomorrow. I know it’s a long shot, but I can still hope.