Really big problems are usually solved in two ways – either through necessity when it gets so big it forces change, or by great leadership. I hate to be a cynic, but increasingly I believe the only way we’ll address our government’s out-of-control spending is when we fall into the positions of Greece and other countries that eventually had no choice.
The latest farm bill debate is a prime example of how this issue won’t be solved without the emergence of great leadership. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which used to be called food stamps, is a huge part of the USDA budget. The House Ag Committee was asked to come up with $33 billion in savings over 10 years, a figure that in itself is a joke because it’s too miniscule to make any meaningful difference. Yet, when the SNAP program was asked to close loopholes, you’d have thought America was turning its back on the poor.
In reality, no benefits were to be diminished; the only goal of the proposals was to eliminate the fraud in the system that allows people who don’t qualify financially to receive the benefits. The outcry was swift and any meaningful reform seems dead before it is even seriously considered.
In the end, someone always benefits either financially or politically from government’s largesse; in fact, fiscal responsibility is largely seen as a liability in the Washington Beltway rather than a virtue. The GSA spending scandal in Las Vegas and the flap over Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s weekend trips back to California served to underscore popular concern about government waste, and both incidents came to light as Americans were filing their income taxes.
Still, these sensational cases of abuse will do little to stop the mentality that pervades government, and that’s that the money government collects from the citizens of this country is merely Monopoly-style play money. It’s hard to find any group strong enough to oppose the support for a particular program.
The greatest example of the hypocrisy around these issues is reflected by Warren Buffett, a person I greatly admire. Here’s a man who employs hundreds of lawyers and attorneys to limit his tax liabilities and take advantage of every deduction possible. He’s done a masterful job of making billions of dollars through government contracts and special benefits, but gleefully talks about the fact that his tax rate should be increased.
Buffett is a smart man who is benefitting hugely from the current system that will eventually bankrupt the nation. However, he also knows that, by increasing the cost of accessing capital, it will, in effect, make available capital more valuable. So, either way, Buffett stands to increase his fortune.
We deride politicians for lacking the statesmanship to make the hard decisions and do what is right for future generations. We demand that they live according to the rules that we all have to abide by, but the reality is that they lack the political will in the Beltway because we lack the will on Main Street to hold their feet to the fire.