The conventional wisdom is that President Bush’s place in history will be determined principally by the outcome of events in the Middle East. I’m not so sure. The real hallmark of this administration might be its fiscal recklessness, its inability to set and maintain budgetary priorities. This reflection is occasioned by Joel Achenbach’s occasionally humorous but mostly depressing piece in today’s Washington Post about our budgetary woes. News flash: We’re in big trouble.
Actually, Achenbach begins by noting that the “big trouble” interpretation of events is out of vogue right now, when the budget deficit is treated almost as if it were a feather in the administration’s cap:
The great news is that, according to White House calculations, the budget deficit has been cut in half, a feat achieved primarily by running up the deficit to such grotesque levels that the halving of it is like drinking too much and then passing out.
The administration’s lousy fiscal policy has been so bad for so long that some may think the topic lacks the novelty usually required for the blogosphere. But that’s part of Achenbach’s point: This is a gigantic problem but we don’t seem to be able to keep our attention fixed on it for very long.
The citizenry has other things on its mind. There’s a war going on. There are huge sporting events and Grammys and Oscars and celebrities mating inappropriately and breaking up promiscuously. Hel- lo: Anna Nicole Smith died.
Achenbach does his part to correct our distraction, and properly focuses most of his attention on our profligate spending. We have “a government that makes the Roman Empire look like a bowling league,” a cumulative national debt of 8.8 trillion dollars, and we continue to add prodigiously to that debt every year with runaway entitlement spending, war spending, pork-barrel spending, and plain old waste. Congress of course must share the blame because Congress passes the appropriations, but at least with respect to the war in Iraq and the new prescription drug benefit, the administration has exerted itself strenuously in order to deceive Congress about the ultimate cost of its policy proposals.
Achenbach also took a couple of shots at the Bush tax cuts, assuming without argument that they were a significant factor in creating the deficits. This is a notoriously slippery subject, so I poked around a little to see if I could find any hard information to rebut Achenbach’s claim on that point. Early analyses (circa 2004) seemed to agree with Achenbach. I did find this later piece at the Heritage Foundation, but it was so weak that I found myself tending to think that on balance there was more truth in Achenbach’s claim than I had previously been prepared to believe.
Concern about budgetary matters does not generate the sort of passion that is typical in discussions about war, or civil liberties, or even immigration policy, but in long-term importance for the future of our civilization it seems to me the budget shares first place (with civil liberties). Furthermore, it is one of the few areas in which President Bush did not inherit a big problem from his predecessor; this fiasco is as thoroughly his as any national problem can be. With the baby boomers beginning to retire this coming January, and with our entitlement programs already significantly underfunded, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this president squandered a budget surplus at precisely the moment we needed to be most careful about our finances. It may turn out to be a Hell of a legacy.