when we said “government” we meant… something else

David Sirota wonders, properly, whether Republican Senators think government creates jobs, or not:

Republican senators — many of whom suggested government can’t create jobs — are hosting town hall meetings to sound the alarm about how proposed defense spending reductions “would cause significant job losses” and therefore hurt the economy.

[Senator Kelly] Ayotte’s rhetorical paroxysms are especially illustrative — and perplexing. In a CNN interview to promote the events, the New Hampshire senator — the same lawmaker who said “it’s not the government that’s going to create jobs” — implored Americans to “think about (the Pentagon cuts) in terms of jobs, 136,000 defense jobs in Virginia….”

[T]here is an explanation for the contradictions.

Since at least the 1980s, Americans have been inculcated to think of the military as separate from “government” — even though the military is part of the government. In fact, it’s not just any old part of the government — in terms of budget and manpower, it is one of the leading entities that puts the “big” in the concept of “Big Government.” Yet, in discussions about national priorities and spending, many still reflexively see the Pentagon as wholly separate from everything else.

This is not exactly illogical, given our culture’s devotion to its soldiers; it makes sense that we’d be wariest about cutting the jobs of those who put their lives on the line for us. (Though I’ve noticed that Republicans seem pretty sanguine about firing cops and firefighters, who are, almost certainly, at greater day-to-day risk than most soldiers. But let’s stick to the federal government, since that’s the conservatives’ biggest punching-bag.) Still, it seems likely that you could cut a lot of defense spending without eliminating the job or reducing the benefits of anyone who’s currently serving in uniform. One of the nice things about the military is that it’s got a pretty high turnover, so if you want to reduce the size of the force, you can do so without layoffs — you just don’t recruit as many replacements when people retire or ETS out. But in any event, there’s a reasonably compelling argument that we should be more cautious about, and protective of, servicemembers’ and veterans’ jobs and benefits than those of ordinary government employees. Soldiers should be the ones we cut last.

But of course, nobody’s talking about actual soldiers. (The law in question allows the administration to “wall off” both war spending and military pay.) Instead they’re using the prestige and natural respect accorded the military as a stalking horse to keep the budget-cutters away from contractors — especially the contractors who provide logistical support and build weapons. And those people — whatever the value of their work to our national security — are no more entitled to special deference and respect than any other government employee or contractor.

Like people who work for the Department of the Interior or the Department of Education, they sit in cubicles and process orders. Or, like the Department of Transportation, they build stuff. I’m sure most of them do fine work. But they don’t put their lives on the line for us.

Mind you, all this budget-cutting came out of Republican intransigence over debt. Remember last summer, when the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party almost dynamited America’s economy and credit rating because they didn’t want to raise the debt ceiling? Well, that dust-up resulted in the the Budget Control Act, which included built-in, automatic budget cuts at the end of this year if Congress didn’t voluntarily curb spending. You can call this foolish, and it will certainly cut government jobs at a time when jobs are in short supply. But the cuts are a direct result of the Republican obsession with reducing the budget and eliminating debt.

To her credit, Ayotte, unlike her fellow anti-defense-cuts barnstormers Jon Kyl and John McCain, did not vote for the bill. But did she vote against it because she was concerned about the jobs of federal employees and contractors? Not hardly. Here’s Ayotte in 2011, explaining on the floor of the Senate why she would not be voting for the bill:

While I appreciate the difficult work done by the Speaker of the House and our Senate leadership in coming up with an agreement that avoids default, I am unable to support a bill that delivers the largest debt ceiling increase in the history of our nation but does very little to confront the underlying problems that have brought us here….

[W]e do need fundamental budget reforms. I have said we need major spending reductions and we need to reform our entitlement programs. I cannot in good conscience agree to a deal that continues to perpetuate the culture of overspending and borrowing in Washington.

“In coming to this decision, I have asked myself several questions. The first question I have asked is does this agreement significantly reduce spending? Unfortunately, the answer is no. While it claims to reduce the deficit by $917 billion over the next ten years, only in Washington would this be called a spending reduction. Because of baseline budgeting, a reduction of $917 billion in the deficit, as it’s claimed, is no reduction at all. Over the next ten years under this agreement, we will spend over $830 billion more in discretionary spending. So there is no real reduction in spending.

Yes! We should reduce discretionary spending to fix the deficit. And what is the biggest chunk, by far, in discretionary spending?

If you lump the VA in with the military (I’m assuming Ayotte doesn’t want to cut veterans’ benefits either), 62 percent of the discretionary budget goes to defense spending. You can’t bring the discretionary budget down without talking about cutting military spending, and cutting it pretty drastically. The only other option is to raise taxes, and I think we all know that’s not going to happen.

Pictured: America’s least favorite Grover.

Personally, I’m not that interested in drastic short-term cuts to the military budget, because I agree with Ayotte’s Keynesian argument that cutting government jobs during a recession is stupid. But, like David Sirota, I wish she’d remember that that argument applies to all government jobs, not just the jobs created by DOD weapons contracts. And I wish she’d put forward a serious plan to reduce the deficit over the long term — perhaps by bending down the health-care cost curve, or perhaps by arguing that we should tie cuts in government jobs (including DOD-created jobs) to full employment, so that we make the cuts when they’re least likely to hurt people. In any event, I think she’s not addressing both sides of the equation, here.

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2 Responses to when we said “government” we meant… something else

  1. Eric says:

    I just wanted to “like” this, but I don’t think I have any kind of WordPress account.

    So: “Like”.

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