Let’s Balance the Budget

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As an early Christmas present, the party of limited government, led by fearless debt warrior Paul Ryan, rammed a $1.1 trillion budget bill through Congress that featured $66 billion in new spending. The Democrats were delighted and President Obama gleefully signed the budget into law, setting up a federal deficit for 2016 of $474 billion. By the end of this year US taxpayers will be in debt to the tune of $20 trillion, or about $61,500 per citizen.

Interest payments on America’s outstanding debt will come to $283 billion, or $191 billion less than the expected deficit. That means the government is now borrowing money just so it can pay the interest on the money it already borrowed. The republic is being run by financial geniuses!

Including budget bills passed earlier in the fall, total federal spending for 2016 will come to $4 trillion, give or take a billion. Roughly 12% of that will be borrowed money. That doesn’t seem like such a huge percentage that the feds couldn’t balance the budget through some belt-tightening measures. In fact, had the GOP controlled their teenage girl tendencies and held spending to what it was in 2015, the deficit would be cut in half to $232 billion.

But doing that might require the feds to cut back on some activities that are useful or necessary, while continuing to do a lot of other stupid stuff. So in the name of doing things right, let’s take a quick stroll through the budget and as the Mick-Jones-less Clash would say … Cut the Crap.

First off there is one item that we absolutely cannot cut – the interest on the debt. If the feds don’t pay this then they will default causing interest rates for them and us to skyrocket. If you think it’s hard to borrow money for a mortgage or a car when rates are at 3-5% try doing it when they’re at 20%. That would be a national nightmare.

So far we’ve cut $0, but there are many things the government does that it has no business doing. We should get rid of this stuff first or at least make it pay for itself.

NASA – what part of the Constitution says “taxpayers must fork over their hard earned money so we can send a remote control buggy to Mars”? If this stuff is worth doing then private companies will do it. Get rid of NASA. Savings = $18 billion.

Department of Agriculture – do these guys grow food? No. They pay some farmers not to grow food and tell others it is illegal for them to do so. Not only do these clowns cost you $31 billion in taxes, they also make the food you buy more expensive than it would be in a free market. Get rid of the Ag Department. Savings = $31 billion.

National Parks, National Forests, Bureau of Land Management, etc. – don’t get me wrong. I love the National Parks and run along the Blue Ridge Parkway weekly, so I don’t want these things to go away. But why should some poor guy working two jobs in New York City to feed his family be forced to pay for a nice place for me to run? He shouldn’t. Make all these national lands pay their own way through user fees or privatize them. Savings = $17 billion.

The Department of Education – does the federal government run any schools? No. So why does this do nothing department even exist? It makes loans and grants. We already have banks and charitable foundations that do this. Get rid of this useless agency. Savings = $73 billion.

The multitude of government agencies that don’t do anything worthwhile (Department of Energy, etc.) or actually harm the general populace through incompetence and inefficiency (Food & Drug Administration, etc.) – These agencies cost somewhere in the vicinity of $100 billion. We should be able to do away with at least half of what they do. Savings = $50 billion.

The Police State – It costs $3 billion per year for the Drug Enforcement Agency to keep us safe by imprisoning people who smoke weed then get the munchies. It costs $5 billion a year for TSA agents to feel you up while other agents steal the laptop out of your carry-on bag. It costs $7 billion a year to jail people who made a math mistake on their taxes, snorted coke, or drained a swamp on their own property. And who knows what it costs for the NSA to keep track of all your emails. Real crime – murder, rape, robbery – is handled at the state and local level. The feds spend the majority of their time grinding you under their boots. Federal police should be cut back to the FBI only. $30 billion saved.

Welfare – I’m going to be a compassionate libertarian and leave this untouched. The Rush Limbaugh crowd may like to complain about lazy welfare queens but the truth is most people on welfare don’t want to be on it and will get off it as soon as they can. We can worry about the lazy after we take care of the incompetent, the inefficient, and the corupt in the rest of the government.

So far we have cut a total of $219 billion and we haven’t even touched the big stuff yet – defense and entitlements.

When President Eisenhower left office in 1961 he warned the American people about the growing cancer of the military-industrial complex, the self-serving symbiotic relationship between government and the defense industry. The American people ignored him. In 1961, the US spent $341 billion (adjusted for inflation to 2015 dollars) in the midst of the Cold War when the threat of war with the Soviet Union was a real concern. In 2016 we will spend $615 billion to fight a bunch of poorly armed barbarians in Afghanistan and the deserts of the Middle East. What the hell?

The US military costs 3 times more than China’s, 7 times more than Russia’s, 10 times more than Britain’s, and 13 times more than either Germany’s or Japan’s. We spend more on “defense” than the next seven biggest spenders combined. Who are we so afraid of? Canada?

Defense spending is way out whack compared to any real threats to the US. Neither China nor Russia has the ability to invade America, and it’s impossible to defeat al-Qaeda or ISIS with a fleet of F-35 fighters. So why are we spending so much damn money? Because defense contractors make big campaign donations, and since World War II we’ve had a succession of Presidents who insist on meddling in every other country’s business.

The F-35 alone will cost $12 billion in 2016. The US Navy (already bigger than the rest of the world’s fleets combined) is spending $13 billion to build new ships. Get rid of these two unnecessary items and we save $25 billion. As part of the defense budget, Congress takes your money and gives it to foreign governments, mainly so they can buy weapons. This needs to stop completely and will save us $39 billion.

But the biggest defense item is the cost of putting American soldiers in foreign countries. The US maintains military bases in 63 countries! We have 76,000 troops in Japan and South Korea. There are 65,000 in Europe. But in the countries where we’re actually fighting – Iraq & Afghanistan – we only have 15,000. The Europeans, Koreans, and Japanese are all big boys who can take of them selves, and the civil wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan are unwinnable. It’s time to declare victory and bring our soldiers home. Per the Whitehouse, it costs $1 million per year to maintain 1 soldier in a foreign country. Bring them all home and we’ll save $156 billion.

Total defense savings = $220 billion.

Last, but certainly the opposite of least, is Social Security and Medicare. The old folks are expensive … and compared to the rest of the population they are rich. It is insane, unfair, and immoral to have working Americans supporting wealthy retirees. It’s time to “means test” Social Security and Medicare. According to data from AARP (American Association of Retired People), the top 10% of the bald and blue-haired make more than $47,000 per person WITHOUT Social Security. A household with two seniors is making nearly $100,000 a year before you write them a check. That is over twice the median household income for the rest of us. Your FICA taxes aren’t keeping them out of poverty. Your FICA taxes are paying their country club dues!

The rich old farts need to be cut off. Doing so would decrease Social Security spending by at least $60 billion. Medicare is a bigger mess to untangle, but there’s no reason why the wealthiest seniors shouldn’t be forced to take care of their own medical and insurance needs like the rest of us do. Doing so should save another $50 billion.

Total SS and Medicare savings = $110 billion.

Add the defense and entitlement savings to the other stuff and we will cut a total of $549 billion from the budget. And we did it without cutting any programs that help the poor and without doing any real damage to national defense. All we did was cut out the crap.

Remember that $474 billion deficit? It’s now a $75 billion surplus.

In 2013 House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said this about the budget – “The cupboard is bare. There’s no more cuts to make.” Nancy Pelosi is full of shit, just like every other member of the government who says we can’t cut spending.

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As the year progresses I plan to keep a running tally of the number of unarmed citizens and dogs killed by police. I will also keep tabs on the number of cops killed in the line of duty.

Here’s the count for the first week of the year, so far I’m not aware of any deaths:

Unarmed Americans killed by police: 0

Dogs killed by police: 0

Police killed in the line of duty: 0

Wayne Middlesteadt is the author of Five Ways to Beat the Market and The Golden Age of Distance Running.

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Wayne Middlesteadt is a 1986 graduate of Georgia Tech and has an MBA from Georgia State University. Currently working as a financial writer and track and field historian, his latest book is Five Ways To Beat The Market.