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February 26, 2013

The great sequester panic

Prepare for the end of food safety as we have known it. For a breakdown in public order. For little children languishing in ignorance. If only Edward Gibbon were here to chronicle the devastation. On March 1, the fabric of our civilization begins to unwind.

That's when the economy begins to stall and we turn our back on our values, all because the federal government will have to begin to cut a few tens of billions of dollars from the largest budget the world has ever known.

This is the lurid fairy tale spun by President Barack Obama. In the fight over the sequester, he is resorting to the tried-and-true (and tiresome) strategy of every official confronted with unwelcome budget cuts, from the commander in chief to a lowly bureaucrat toiling at some school district: maximize the scaremongering and pain.

In Hans Christian Andersen terms, Obama is the princess and the sequester is the pea. Over the next 10 years, the sequester amounts to a $1.16 trillion cut, or roughly 3 cents on every federal dollar. If we can't squeeze a couple of pennies out of every dollar, we might as well begin our great national bankruptcy proceedings right now.

This year we are supposed to cut $85 billion from a $3.5 trillion budget. And it won't even be that much. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government won't be able to cut the full $85 billion. It will manage to cut only about half that in 2013.

As Yuval Levin of the journal National Affairs points out, even with the sequester, the federal government will spend a little more in 2013 than in 2012, $3.553 trillion compared with $3.538 trillion. Welcome to the Age of Austerity.

Even with the sequester, nondefense discretionary spending will still be up almost 10 percent since 2008. Even with the sequester, federal spending is projected to be a robust 22.8 percent of gross domestic product in 2023. Even with the sequester, the debt will hit 100 percent of GDP just two years later than it would otherwise, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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