C.J. Marshall: Significia: It's not as easy as it seems
Today, I'm going talk about the efforts of a group of people known colloquially as the "tea party."
For the past several years, the tea party group has contended that federal spending is out of control and certain measures must be taken in order to force the government to "live within its means" and not get further in debt.
The term "tea party" comes from the Boston Tea Party, one of the most famous historical events, in which colonists dumped chests of tea into Boston harbor to protest the tax imposed on it by the British Parliament. Because taxes and government spending are tied together, today's tea party members contend that the high taxes required to support government spending and to pay the government's debt are detrimental to the nation. Their solution is to cut back on government spending, allowing a decrease in taxes as well as a reduction of the national debt, which continues to grow higher each year.
I've been listening to such arguments for many years - long before the term "tea party" became a popular way of referring to people who subscribe to such practices. And I agree that living within our means is probably the best thing to do in the long run, as opposed to borrowing to keep government functions operational. However, I don't believe it's ever going to happen - at least not easily - because such things are never easy.
If you talk to a large majority of people about government spending, the conservation would probably go something like this:
"Yes, you're absolutely right. The government is spending too much money. We have to cut back and live within our means." (Pause) "What do you mean, you're going to cut the funding for our programs? We can't afford to have that happen! Don't reduce the money for our program, if you have cut something, cut (the other person's) program."
And so it goes. Every person believes that the money they receive from the government - whether directly or to some program that provides direct benefits - is their due. Just about every person who pays taxes is of the opinion that they are justified in all money they receive from the government; because after all, that's what they're entitled to as taxpayers.
It all depends of course on how the ox is gored, of course. If a member of Congress brings a large of amount of money to his or her constituents, those who don't receive any direct benefit from it will derisively call it "pork" and bemoan the fact that such "government waste" is ruining the nation. However, government money that provides benefits to an area is called something else by the local voters - "entitlements." How quickly we condemn the politicians for wasting government money on various projects outside the area; and yet how even more quickly we condemn those same politicians, because they don't bring enough "entitlement" money into our particular area.
The evidence of this line of thought is overwhelming. When a member of Congress runs for re-election, what is one of the biggest factors they will cite concerning their performance. That's right, how much money they brought in to benefit the local voters. And nobody ever says during such campaigns "Gee maybe we didn't need all that money. Maybe it would have been better that it wasn't spent, so our taxes wouldn't be so high."
No matter how much people might grumble about high taxes, a sure way to get them even more upset is for the government - no matter what the level - to announce that certain programs are going to be cut or eliminated due to lack of funds. I've attended school board meetings and borough council sessions, in which citizens demanded that proposed cutbacks not be put into effect because it would have a detrimental effect on the community. While I'm not unsympathetic in these and other circumstances, the facts are clear. Either taxes must be raised, another source of income must be found, or money must be cut from another program in order to make up the shortfall. And that, of course, is where it gets difficult.
At all levels of government - local, state and federal - there's only so much money to go around. Because everyone thinks the government programs that benefit them directly are invaluable, they believe the government would never cut the funding, and - by extension - such cuts would never affect them directly. That's why so many people pay lip service to being in favor of the government practicing "frugality." In the real world, of course, such things are never that simple. Any cutbacks in government spending is going to affect someone - and these people will always protest that its the other person who should be making such sacrifices. The trouble is "the other person" will also protest when their funds are cut, and make the same arguments about how invaluable their programs are.
This is a problem which has no easy or simple solution. Although everyone agrees that the government should live within its means and stop spending so much money because we can't afford it, nobody is ever willing to make the necessary sacrifices to make such things possible - it's always the other guy who is expected to make such sacrifices.