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Commentary

Government’s Obesity Crisis


     
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The question that will haunt America for the next several months is whether the new 112th Congress has the will to trim back the unsustainable excesses to which Washington has become accustomed or will fall back into old, unhealthy habits.

Every representative must wage battle between personal desires and the will to make responsible decisions. But the road to discipline is fraught with temptation.

The first test will be raising the statutory limit on the amount of money the government can borrow. Even before the new Congress was sworn in, Austan Goolsbee, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, was warning that failing to raise the debt limit—now $14.3 trillion, or more than 95 percent of last year’s Gross Domestic Product—would be “catastrophic” and pure “insanity.”

Goolsbee’s cries to loosen the belt on the already obese federal budget sounded much like the excuses overeaters use to avoid changing their habits. “Just a few more cookies. . . . I’ll work myself into those skinny jeans tomorrow.”

Goolsbee certainly is not the first to want to delay self-denial. Since World War I, when the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917 placed a statutory limit on government borrowing, Congress has increased the debt ceiling more than 70 times. But each increase, like those additional cookies, has made it more difficult to stop and has helped hide the fact that we face ruin if the overindulgence continues.

Unfortunately, what has been a relatively benign problem until recently—the proverbial “10 extra pounds”—has now become the equivalent of America’s obesity crisis.

Economist Craig Eyermann, creator of our online Government Cost Calculator, MyGovCost.org, recently examined the economic burden government spending has placed on American families.

In his brief study, “Aim at the Zero Deficit Line,” Eyermann found that during the years 1967 through 2001 median household income and government spending increased at approximately the same rate. As a result, during that nearly 35-year period, Washington could have balanced the federal budget by reducing federal spending a mere $570.75 per household per year.

After 2001, however, the gap between median household incomes and government spending widened—with incomes more or less stagnant, while government spending soared. By 2009, Eyermann found, the government would have had to lower spending approximately $8,991 per household to balance the budget.

Last fall, before he became speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner proposed rolling back federal spending to 2008 levels. But that’s like a sedentary senior reducing his daily calorie intake from 5,500 to 4,500; it’s still way too much.

The federal budget in fiscal year 2010 was $3.6 trillion. In fiscal 2008 it was $2.9 trillion. In 2000, President Clinton’s final full year in office, the budget was $1.8 trillion.

Many liberals speak of the Clinton era as the golden age of contemporary politics, when everything was right with Washington. So let’s return to those golden days, when the federal budget was half of what it is today.

Like all gluttons struggling to reform, politicians and presidential advisers will provide plenty of excuses for increasing the debt limit—just this once. But if 70 previous increases weren’t enough, why will this increase be different? Or is Washington playing its usual games?

Tomorrow is now upon us—the profligate 111th Congress is history and the 112th has taken its place, promising fealty to America’s founders and frugality to American taxpayers.

Will Washington hold the line this time? I sigh in hopeful exasperation as I reach for another cookie.


Emily C. Skarbek is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, founding Director of the Institute's Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation (COEI) and the COEI Government Cost Calculator, and Lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at King's College in London, England.






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