Posted by: Jeff | January 28, 2010

Is The Freeze A Jedi Mind Trick?

Watching this Bloggingheads between Matt Yglesias and Reihan Salam got me thinking; there could be one way in which Obama’s spending freeze actually turns out positive on both the politics and the merits.

The problem here is that the most indefensible and wasteful government programs also tend to be the ones with the most powerful lobbies or entrenched interests. That’s why they’ve managed to stick around in the budget despite being indefensible. For example, politicians from big agricultural states are never, in a million years, going to stand for the elimination of agricultural subsidies.

As Ygelsias describes it, Obama’s plan is to freeze spending, then go through the budget and slash bad programs (like the agricultural subsidies) and use the surplus funds to bulk up good programs (like the ones that help the poor). That way everything still averages out to zero, and good programs aren’t knee-capped by the freeze. The problem above comes in when the freeze has to pass Congress and all those politicians raise hell about their pet programs getting cut, so the mix of the freeze gets changed to target the programs with the smallest lobbies and entrenched interests. (Again, like programs that help the poor.)

Essentially, while it’s theoretically possible for Obama to institute a smart and moral spending freeze, the nature of our politic system means a stupid and immoral spending freeze is overwhelmingly more likely.

Now, this is just me talking here, but what if the freeze isn’t actually meant to pass? What if it’s just a political gambit? Under this rendering, Obama would come to the American people with his suggested freeze and its particular mix of decreases and increases. By doing this, he shows his sensitive to Americans’ concerns about the deficit and the budget. He demonstrates his awareness of and engagement with the problem, and shows he’s not a “cartoon liberal” who thinks all spending is good spending, as Yglesias puts it. Then the Congress comes back and says, no, here’s the mix of increases and decreases we want. Obama balks, says that mix is irresponsible, and vetoes the thing.

If Obama plays it right, the poor wouldn’t get screwed, he would come off looking responsible, and Congress would come off looking like they just put craven political interests ahead of the good of the country. Because, you know, that’s actually what they would have done.

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