Paul Samuelson describes the dynamic of self-interest which has driven the federal government to the brink of bankruptcy and which inherently repels reform.
We in America have created suicidal government; the threatened federal shutdown and stubborn budget deficits are but symptoms. By suicidal, I mean that government has promised more than it can realistically deliver and, as a result, repeatedly disappoints by providing less than people expect or jeopardizing what they already have. But government canâ€™t easily correct its excesses, because Americans depend on it for so much that any effort to change the status arouses a firestorm of opposition that virtually ensures defeat. Governmentâ€™s very expansion has brought it into disrepute, paralyzed politics and impeded it from acting in the national interest. …
[D]espite superficial support for â€œdeficit reductionâ€ or â€œtax reform,â€ few Americans would surrender their own benefits, subsidies and tax breaks â€” a precondition for success. As a practical matter, most federal programs and tax breaks fall into one of two categories, each resistant to change.
The first includes big items (Social Security, the mortgage interest deduction) whose benefits are so large that any hint of cuts prompts massive opposition â€” or its specter. Practical politicians retreat. The second encompasses smaller programs (Amtrak, ethanol subsidies) that, though having a tiny budget effect, inspire fanatical devotion from their supporters. Just recently, for example, the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns defended culture subsidies (â€œan infinitesimally small fraction of the deficitâ€) in The Post. Politicians retreat; meager budget gains arenâ€™t worth the disproportionate public vilification.
Well, if you canâ€™t change big programs or small programs, what can you do? Not much. …
Government is suicidal because it breeds expectations that cannot be met. All the partisan skirmishing over who gets credit for averting a shutdown misses the larger issue: whether we can restore government as an instrument of progress or whether it remains â€” as it is now â€” a threat.
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