Dec 13, 2010
The 1993 movie Dave has an old, durable plot, taken straight out of The Prince and the Pauper, or The Prisoner of Zenda, or even Akira Kurasawa’s samurai epic Kagemusha. A lookalike takes the place of the nation’s leader – and is actually better at it than the real leader is. “Dave” isn’t the best of these by a long shot, but this film is the only one that spends a lot of its time arguing about money, as opposed to swordfighting.
Dave, impersonating a gravely ill president in this scene, tries to restore funding for a program for homeless children, and calls out the commerce secretary on a “buy American” marketing program his department is funding, touching off a clash over spending and values.
In one sense, the confrontation we see unfolding in those 64 seconds cuts to the heart of what’s at stake when we talk about cutting government spending. We’re not going to be able to get out of our long-term budget problems without cutting something, and the cuts we make have to be morally defensible. The president – and all the rest of us – have to be able to say that we’ve preserved and even made progress on the things that matter. And we also all have to believe that the things we cut are things we can live without, or at least are the best alternatives in a range of bad options.
Taming the budget is about setting priorities, and they have to be priorities that match up with our values: fairness, compassion, maintaining jobs and economic growth, and preserving our national security.
In another sense, however, Dave the fake president is incredibly lucky. A choice between a fairly silly marketing effort and homeless children is a no-brainer. Who would choose the marketing program? Certainly no one who also had to run for re-election.
In the real world, we may not be so lucky as to have clear choices between what’s valuable and what’s stupid. The fact is that despite Americans’ distrust of government, most of the federal government’s money goes to programs that people actually support and depend on. Have a look at this pie chart:
More than 60 percent of the government’s money gets spent on just five things: Social Security, national defense, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the money we’ve already borrowed. A lot of the things that people suggest first for cuts, like foreign aid, the space program or farm subsidies, are small fractions of the budget. Plus, thanks to rising health care costs and an aging population, it’s the popular programs like Medicare that will take up a bigger and bigger share of the budget, even as millions of Americans depend on them.
Even after controversial efforts like the Wall Street bailout and the economic stimulus are scheduled to phase out, we’ll still be left with a federal budget that’s on an unsustainable path. In fact the federal budget would be unsustainable even if those programs had never happened.
This is what lies at the heart of a lot of the opposition, not just to the plan actually voted on by by the presidential deficit commission, but to a lot of the alternative ideas as well. In the weeks before the commission voted, there were all kinds of proposals put out there, from different commission members and other groups, and the reaction to each can be summed up like this: “You want to cut that? But we need that!” Or, from another angle that’s been heard a lot lately because of the Bush tax cuts: “You want to tax what? We can’t tax that!”
But obviously, something has to be taxed, and something has to be cut if we’re going to solve this.
We can and should weigh priorities and programs and ask the fundamental questions: Are these programs working? Are they really important priorities? But the tough choices, the really painful decisions, may come when we’ve gotten rid of the easy stuff, the no-brainers, and are forced to choose between things that are all valuable.
That’s when values matter the most. That’s when it’s most important to be able to look our fellow citizens in the eye and say, “This is the best choice we can make.” This isn’t just about balancing the books. It’s about deciding what matters.