Last week's Economist had a very good editorial concerning the lack of debate in our current presidential contest regarding the role of government. From the article: "AMID all the name-calling in America’s presidential campaign, a serious subject has begun to emerge: what role should government play?...Both men’s positions have been contorted by each other’s attack ads. But there is a real left-right division, personified by the two candidates. Mr Obama, who has spent most of his life in the public sector, academia or community work, plainly thinks the state has a bigger role to play—in galvanising the economy when demand collapses (as in 2008) and in moderating inequality. By contrast, Mr Romney, who made $200m or so in private equity, believes that the best thing that government can do is to get out of the way—by cutting taxes, reducing regulations and leaving people to build their businesses...America needs a man who can spell out what he thinks a modern government should do—and then how to pay for it. With luck the debate will push either Mr Obama or Mr Romney to do that. At the moment, neither seems to understand the central domestic challenge of the next presidency."
Indeed, we are headed to the largest tax increase in U.S. (or perhaps anyone's) history with mandatory cuts of $100B to take effect this January across government expenditures if Congress fails to act (which will likely happen). Yet both the Executive and Legislative branches refuse to stop or greatly reduce spending for any current program, refuse to stop the creation of new programs that require new spending, and endlessly argue about how much or little to increasing spending for current programs. I still remember Sen Coburn's tirade this past January during arguments about whether to increase the federal deficit ceiling wherein he noted that while the Senate was discussing raising the debt ceiling by $1.2B they hadn't canceled or reduced spending for a single government program!
Why is it that our elected representatives have such a hard time dealing with such plain, simple, fundamental issues? I know one reason is that various constituencies have differing interests, all demanding such special treatment in the law and almost all requiring funding or exemption under the tax code. An elected official keeps in mind that canceling a program 'injures' whatever group was benefitting from the program. String enough canceled programs together and you have a sufficiently large population of 'injured' voters that will make sure you aren't reelected, not in a coordinated manner but as a consequence of their aggregated anger. (I'm not implying by the above that politicians always or mostly vote with the sole purpose of ensuring they get reelected. Most of them don't, i.e. vote with this primarily in mind. But it is the case that a politician can't do what he was elected to do--represent his electorate--if he can't stay in office for any length of time. More on that in another post...) I think it would be easier for elected officials to hold the line, and perhaps push it back, if arguments on spending were made within an understood and publicly accepted framework on the fundamental role of government. Big or small (number of employees at such-n-such an expense)? More or less intrusive? Highly focused in its authorities across a broad spectrum of issues or quite general in the framework it establishes, with the details left to the individual states and local communities to work out?
Yes, small, limited, minimally intrusive government is at the heart of the TEA Party and "conservative right" movements while the "liberal left" embraces a much more activist role for government but this argument is not being explicitly made by the presidential candidates in ways that shape their policies and translate to plans they would put into action in January 2013. Wouldn't some 'plain talk' be a good thing for once?