Yes, the deficit is down. But the government is exploding out of control.
WITH ALL the excitement on Wall Street, you may not have heard about the other plummeting number in the news this week. According to the Treasury Department, the federal budget deficit for fiscal year 1997 — which ended Sept. 30 — was just $22.6 billion. The last time it was that low, Gerald Ford was president.
So shouldn't we be dancing in the streets? Quite recently, after all, the country was athunder with calls to eliminate the federal deficit. In 1992, Ross Perot drew nearly 20 million votes for president, almost one-fifth of the total, with his pie charts and blunt talk on the evils of deficit spending. Just days after taking office in January 1993, Bill Clinton ditched his long-promised middle-class tax cut because, he said, deficit reduction was a higher priority. There was no political backlash. When Republicans swept to control of Congress in 1994, the first item in their "Contract with America" was the Balanced Budget Amendment.
Surely, then, the near-evaporation of the deficit is a major piece of good news, right?
Wrong. It is a very minor piece of good news. It means simply that the federal government will pay its bills this year without (too much) borrowing. But those bills — the budget of the US government — are bigger than they have ever been before. Though the deficit has been slashed, spending continues to skyrocket.
In the year Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House, federal outlays totaled $ 1.46 trillion. This year, federal outlays are expected to hit $1.7 trillion. By 2002, they are expected to reach $ 1.9 trillion.
It is hard to grasp amounts so unfathomably huge, but here is an exercise that may help: Add together every penny the federal government spent from 1800 to 1940. Adjust the total upward to reflect nearly two centuries of inflation. You will wind up with less than the $1.7 trillion budgeted for this fiscal year.
In other words, the government in Washington will spend more of the nation's wealth in the next 12 months alone than it spent in the 140 years from Jefferson's first term through FDR's second. It will cost more to run the federal government for a single year than it cost to fight the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the First World War; more than it cost to pay for the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of Alaska; more than it cost to create the Panama Canal, to build the Library of Congress, to construct the Hoover Dam, to carry out eight national censuses, to relieve the Great Depression, and to operate the postal system for five generations — combined.
The deficit is down. But the government is exploding out of control.
Two years ago, President Clinton declared the Era of Big Government over. Republican budgeteers spotlighted 300 federal agencies, commissions, and departments they intended to zero out of existence. It was all humbug. Big Government grows bigger by the hour. Most of the agencies slated for elimination have seen their budgets rise. From the Department of Commerce to Goals 2000 to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, Congress and the president are expanding the scope and cost of government beyond anything in our national experience.
The only major area in which the federal government has sharply cut back in recent years is defense. This is the famous "peace dividend" made possible by the end of the Cold War - which in turn was made possible by Ronald Reagan's military build-up.
"Just as the Reagan defense build-up caused the deficit to soar in the 1980s," writes economist Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute in the new issue of The American Enterprise, "it is primarily the Reagan peace dividend that has caused the deficit to plummet in the late 1990s.. . . The budget deficit is falling today not primarily because Clinton or Bush raised taxes . . . but because the defense budget is now more than $100 billion a year lower than when the Berlin Wall was still standing."
While spending on the nation's defense has dropped to its lowest level ever — 16 percent of the federal budget — domestic spending has shot up to an unheard-of 68 percent. Never have social programs eaten up so large a share of the nation's economic output. Never have so much of our earnings been confiscated to pay for government schemes.
But we are losing more than money. We are losing freedom. The bigger the government gets, the further its tentacles reach, the less we are permitted to decide anything for ourselves.
Today, Washington decides what medicines we may buy. Washington decides how long new mothers stay in the hospital. Washington decides how we may prepare for our retirement. Washington decides what our children shall cover in school, what labels must appear on wine, how many gallons of water our toilets may flush. Washington decides whether office-supply companies can merge, whether tobacco billboards may go up in ballparks, whether cars may be sold without airbags.
Soon, reports The New York Times, "the federal government will start operating a computerized directory showing every person newly hired by every employer in the country." Is this what we want?
More government always equals less liberty. With every budget Congress passes, we lose more of our rights. The big story isn't that the deficit is being erased. It's that our freedom is being erased. And we are letting it happen.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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