On March 1, the day the dreaded sequester budget cuts took effect, President Barack Obama prophesized that the cuts will “hurt our economy, they’ll cost us jobs, and to set it right, both sides need to be willing to compromise.” Prior to that, Obama had warned: “Once these cuts go into effect, thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off. Air traffic controllers and airport security will see cutbacks[…]These cuts will set back medical science for a generation.”
“To hear President Obama tell it, the impending $85 billion in spending cuts to the federal budget known as the sequester are the worst disaster since Seth MacFarlane hosted the academy awards,” said Nick Gillespie, former editor-in-chief of Reason magazine and current editor and content contributor of Reason.com. Would all of the things Obama predicted really happen? Will we see planes crashing on runways and terrorist hijackings go up as our children suffer from poor education? Will medical science, which just in the last few weeks found a cure for AIDS, stagnate from lack of funding from this severe austerity measure?
Before trying to answer these questions, it might be worth putting the issue in perspective, politically. The whole idea of sequester came from the White House in August 2011, another self-imposed doomsday time bomb scheme not unlike the “fiscal cliff” from three months ago. Obama’s predictions death and destruction to our economy are, in reality, predictions about his own plan.
Fortunately, there is very little reason to think that the $44 billion being cut this year, or the $85 billion being cut over the next two years, will have anything like the dramatic consequences that the White House is predicting. The cuts represent either one or two percent of all government spending, depending on which number you look at. Interestingly enough, even these “massive” cuts aren’t massive enough to keep the expected government spending this year below last year. If losing two percent of a still-growing budget would cause significant cut-backs in education, medical science and air traffic controllers while our failing War on Drugs and corrupt or inept governmental organizations like the Food and Drug Administration or Department of Education continue to thrive, we’ve got another problem on our hands entirely.
President Obama is not an idiot. Very intelligent economists and politicians disagree over what the exact effects of the sequester will be and it’s not an indefensible position to be concerned about austerity measures, but even he is not immune from being swept up in partisan rhetoric so prone to overreaching claims. The claim, for example, that “If the sequester hits, federal prosecutors will have to ‘let criminals go,’” was ruled “mostly false” by the non-partisan watchdog group PolitiFact.com. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s claim that “There are literally teachers now who are getting pink slips” as a result of the sequester got “four Pinocchios” from the Washington Post’s fact checkers, in addition to a “mostly false” stamp from PolitiFact.com. If particular policy decisions don’t stand firmly on real facts, one has to wonder what they’re standing on, or if there’s any solid ground beneath it at all.
At the end of the day, the sequester simply isn’t that big of a deal. It doesn’t cut enough money to do any damage to short-term economic growth, or to chip any significant amount out of our still-growing national debt. It does, however, serve to show which politicians are basing their decisions on facts and data, and which ones are choosing sides on ideological grounds. The whole ordeal may be useful for this reason alone, despite its failure to do (and, paradoxically, not do) anything else.