the national interest

George Will Now Against Intentional Irrationality

Columnist George Will participates in a discussion about the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the Peterson Institute for International Economics on October 27, 2010 in Washington, DC. The discussion was focused on a collection of letters written by the late senator and edited by his daughter Maura Moynihan in a book titled
Forfend! Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

George F. Will visits the National Institutes of Health, and produces a column praising the economic and humanitarian power of federal science research. Sadly, Will observes, budget sequestration is imposing needless, infuriating hardship on the agency’s work: “Much research proposed by extraordinarily talented physicians and scientists cannot proceed because the required funding is prevented by the intentional irrationality by which the sequester is administered.”

He’s right. Sequestration is incredibly irrational, not only failing to distinguish good programs from bad, but imposing its cuts in a blind, disproportionately painful manner. Sequestration exists because in 2011, House Republicans threatened to wreak havoc upon the world economy unless President Obama made large ideological concessions. Unable to resolve the hostage standoff, the two sides agreed to impose large, across-the-board cuts, sparing both the main programs of the welfare state and avoiding any revenue increase. The idea was to force some eventual agreement between the two sides that would replace sequestration with a mix of cuts to retirement programs and closing tax deductions.

But, after Obama won reelection, Republicans decided as a party to embrace sequestration as its preferred policy – or, at least, as preferable to any negotiated budget deal with Obama. Part of this campaign involved mocking Obama’s argument that sequestration was terrible policy. A key figure in this campaign was George F. Will.

Here’s one Will column, a long sneering polemic against Obama’s warnings about sequestration. It involves the use of words like “forfend”:

Batten down the hatches — the sequester will cut $85 billion from this year’s $3.6 trillion budget! Or: Head for the storm cellar — spending will be cut 2.3 percent! Or: Washington chain-saw massacre — we must scrape by on 97.7 percent of current spending! Or: Chaos is coming because the sequester will cut a sum $25 billion larger than was just shoveled out the door(supposedly, but not actually) for victims of Hurricane Sandy! Or: Heaven forfend, the sequester will cut 47 percent as much as was spent on the AIG bailout! Or: Famine, pestilence and locusts will come when the sequester causes federal spending over 10 years to plummet from $46 trillion all the way down to $44.8 trillion! Or: Grass will grow in the streets of America’s cities if the domestic agencies whose budgets have increased 17 percent under President Obama must endure a 5 percent cut!

Today, while Obama prepares a governmental power grab to combat global warming, sensible Americans, tuckered out with apocalypse fatigue, are yawning through the catastrophe du jour, the sequester. They say: Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the hamsters of sequestration.

That was the Republican line. Sequestration may not be perfect, but it beat making a deal with Obama. Budget cuts are budget cuts. What you cut and how you cut it doesn’t really matter. As Will put it, “such critics [of sequestration] are utopians if they are waiting for the arrival of intelligent government. The real choice today is between bigger or smaller unintelligent government.”

The thing is, this is still the Republican line. The premise of sequestration was that it would make a deal possible, because imposing badly designed cuts to programs both parties generally like – remember, the federal programs Republicans most want to cut are exempt – created a positive sum incentive for negotiation. Obama has offered such a compromise, but Republicans dismissed it without offering any compromise of their own. There are lots and lots of potential ways the two sides could make a deal to end sequestration, but Republicans won’t entertain any of them. The only strategies under consideration involve using threats to extract unilateral concessions from Obama. The notion of actually trading something with the president remains completely verboten among conservatives.

Will’s column does not acknowledge any of these things – the GOP’s embrace of sequestration, let alone his own sneering at the prospect that sequestration might do any harm. The only line in it even hinting at who readers ought to blame for the sorry state of affairs he describes is that it’s Obama’s fault: “beginning with the indiscriminate and ineffective 2009 stimulus, government has incited indiscriminate hostility to public spending.” Ah, so the hostility is “indiscriminate,” but Obama “incited” it by passing a law to fill in half the output gap and prevent a depression. If you’re conceding that your own position amounts to “intentional irrationality” and “indiscriminate hostility to public spending,” maybe you should actually, you know, admit that.

George Will: Intentional Irrationality Now Bad