05 March 2013
The sequester: an economic or political disaster?
The dreaded "sequester," a package of automatic spending cuts triggered by the usual legislative dysfunction, went into effect last weekend. Most of the nation responded with a collective shrug, despite the dire warnings of the Obama administration of terrible economic consequences should the measure the current President signed into law actually take effect. The idea, of course, was that it should not have taken effect -- that prospect of the automatic cuts provided for would be so unpleasant that the parties would feel compelled to make any kind of deal to prevent them. The President actually performed according to this script, but it only made him look somewhat hysterical if not somewhat dogmatic. The poison in the sequester pill, supposedly, was the list of cuts to defense spending, doubly harmful in terms of allegedly diminished military preparedness and jobs lost in the defense bureaucracy. Republicans in general, however, didn't bite that bait in the way that probably was expected of them. Seeing that Obama's alternative to the sequester included more taxes, they proved willing to risk being labelled irresponsible on national security and haven't suffered for it yet. Few people by now believe that there's no fat to be cut from the military establishment, and the draconian nature of the sequester probably appeals to many ordinary Americans. If you tell them that this is something neither Republicans nor Democrats really wanted, and that neither was capable of preventing it, you might get a few grim chuckles of contemptuous satisfaction, if not queries on the feasibility of running the entire government this way. In the face of this apparent initial indifference, it looks as if the President overplayed his hand, perhaps hoping to make the sequester an equivalent to the 1995 government shutdown that momentarily discredited a Republican Congress and supposedly secured President Clinton's re-election the following year. Obama wanted Americans to see that the sequester would hurt the country and was Republicans' fault. Americans question the harm and blame both parties for incompetence. They may also blame Obama for seemingly refusing to cut enough, or anything, while the voices calling for more stimulus are fewer and fainter. Common sense probably tells most people that a Republican Congress and Democratic President could not possibly have arranged for truly harmful cuts, as opposed to politically harmful cuts, even as a doomsday scenario. But if you're already assuming all of them to be stupid, is there no limit to their stupidity? Indeed, is there no limit to our stupidity if we allow either party to share power hereafter? Can no one in America come up with anything better? Is no one in American willing to take a chance on anything different? The evidence suggests that, in terms of limiting our own choices, Americans are pretty well sequestered already.