Smoke And Mirrors Budget Style

I get questions. Sometimes I get lots of questions. Sometimes I get the same question phrased differently by different people.

I don’t claim to be a policy wonk or anything like that, I do try to keep myself informed so when friends ask these questions I can often give them a reasonable answer. When I can’t I promise to research it for them.

Lately the questions have focused on the budget and sequestration. Not my strongest points, but I try to answer as best I can.

That’s the subject Clyde asked me about earlier this week. Wanted to know how this will affect us here in the Blue Ridge.

It’s a difficult question, complicated but not overly so.

I told him it had a much bigger chance of affecting our friends out East, where the military is a major part of their economy. And in NOVA where the Pentagon and DC is a big factor. Here, not so much.

Since the sequestration cuts are at the president’s discretion, he is most likely to focus on that aspect of the budget. I know, he keeps claiming it will cut firemen and police. More horse hockey from a virtual fountain of horse hockey. Firemen and police are not federal employees. He has also claimed it will delay or cut social security benefits. And Medicare. More from that same horse’s rear.

But the real question here is how did this happen? In less than one generation we have a bigger budget than we could have ever imagined just 40 years ago.

We all know how difficult our own household budget can be. Essentially we start at zero each month and add in all required spending; house and car payments, water, electricity, phone, groceries, saving account, stuff like that. If we haven’t exceeded our monthly income by then, the rest is discretionary. Movies, nights on the town, a new suit or shoes or dress. Things you can skip over to add to savings. You get the idea.

Our Federal government’s budgeting used to work essentially the same way until about the time Lyndon Johnson grew the government so much that the process was just too cumbersome and impractical.

Jimmy Carter rode into town with a plan created by the founders of Texas Instruments called ‘zero based budgeting.’ He himself had applied a modified form in Georgia where it seemed to work fine. (But not for long.)

Sure, the name sounds like what we all do, but it’s nowhere close. Instead, last year’s budget becomes the new zero. Each department plans for an increase of X percent. Which becomes the next year’s budget. (Not quite that simple, but it makes it easier to explain.)

What we’ve seen from politicians and department secretaries in Washington for a long time now is more like this: Your department had planned an 8% increase this budget year. Instead it get’s scaled back to a 5% increase. You immediately run to the nearest news outlet and wail that your budget was cut by a draconian 3%. It’s a cut dammit, if I say it’s a cut! Oh the sacrifices I’m asked to make!

You never mention that your budget actually increased 5% over last year. Just don’t you dare.

Sit back and let Lisa Douglas demonstrate how it’s done.

The Sixties have often been called the Golden Age of television. The writers and actors of Green Acres excelled at taking the preposterous to the extreme, while still maintaining a thin thread of believability.

Washington has been taking the preposterous and passing it off as reality for way too long.

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