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Reason Foundation

Stop Crying and Start Cutting

What's wrong with a government shutdown?

David Harsanyi
March 2, 2011

Did you know that those in the federal government—the folks who brought you $1.6 trillion of yearly deficits, brought you $14 trillion of debt, and make Elmo a reality—offer Americans 56 separate programs to help them better understand their finances? Where will these citizens go for sage advice if Washington shuts down?

With all the hand-wringing and self-defeating talk from Republicans about the political cost of allowing the federal government to shut down for a couple of weeks, there is a missed opportunity. What better way to illustrate just how little taxpayers get back on their "investments"? And what a great time to demolish the myth that even modest cuts would detrimentally affect most Americans.

Alas, it looks as if the Senate and House will agree to federal spending cuts of only $4 billion to avert a government shutdown for two more weeks. Republicans initially asked for $61 billion in spending cuts for the remainder of the year—in real terms, a pittance—which, according to many Democrats, would destroy a brittle economic recovery and kill thousands of jobs.

If you believe that stimulus spending creates productive, self-sustaining jobs, I suspect you're forced to believe that a lack of stimulus spending destroys those jobs. Democrats are relying heavily on the claim by Moody's Analytics' chief economist that 400,000 fewer jobs would be created (and saved?) by the end of 2011—and 700,000 fewer jobs by the end of 2012—if Congress were to cut $61 billion. Now, the Moody's forecast has been battered by a number of economists, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, a fan of stimulative efforts, dismissed those numbers, as well.

Who knows? Laymen like me can only rely on one scientific truth when it comes to economic forecasts: They're always wrong, except when by some fluke they're right. But it is tough to accept the idea that cutting back less than 1 percent of the debt-heavy budget could be detrimental to the economy. And according to a new Government Accountability Office report, there are hundreds of billions in bloated and duplicative programs Congress could cut before even having to take on entitlements, defense spending, or any supposedly invaluable programs.

The report found there were 18 federal food and nutrition assistance programs, costing taxpayers $62.5 billion in 2008. There was not one study to find out whether any of it was effective. The Wall Street Journal reported there are 82 federal programs to improve teacher quality. Silly, because according to unions, there is not one identifiably ineffective teacher in the entire country.

According to the GAO report, there are some 80 different economic development programs, which have probably created more jobs for bureaucrats manning the programs than they have private-sector jobs.

There are 15 different agencies overseeing food safety. Even though conservatives are pro-salmonella, food producers already have the greatest incentive of all to give us safe food, namely preserving their success and existence. So can't these programs, typically irrelevant and expensive, be at the very least streamlined?

When, as Democrats contend, cutting a single-digit percentage of the budget becomes an abdication of our duty, how can we ever get to $61 billion in spending cuts, much less a balanced budget? If half the government believes that creating debt is an economic stimulant, what are the chances of our ever dealing with national debt?

Any spending cut that does not involve defense (which should be on the table) induces Democrats to lament the inconceivable and imagined personal and economic toll Americans will suffer. The truth is that those who view nearly all government spending as not only a moral obligation but also economically advantageous don't really want to cut a penny.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter at davidharsanyi. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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