Bang for the Buck

One of the most aggravating things about many self-proclaimed Tea Partiers both in and out of political office at the moment is their braying about their budgetary parsimony, their claim of superior attention to keeping the federal budget small and lean. A smart, aggressive budgetary manager doesn’t approach cutting a budget like Friday the 13th’s Jason in a summer-camp cabin. Every thrifty shopper knows you don’t save money by refusing to buy anything. That’s not thrift, that’s poverty. If you’re trying to keep a tight grip on a budget, the real question is, “What’s a bargain? When do I get a lot for very little?” and conversely, “Must I have the most expensive items in my budget? Is there a cheaper alternative, or if it must be expensive, must I do it?”

So the issue with something like the National Endowment for the Humanities is not that it’s an expense the nation can’t afford, because it’s hard to imagine a cheaper date. A dollar or less per citizen of the United States? What’s not to like? It ends up on the wish list of cuts because Tea Party followers don’t like it, not because it’s expensive. Honestly, we should have a few $1/person items in the budget to tickle every ideological and cultural fancy. A buck here for the NEH, a buck there for faith-based initiatives. Unless that list goes on nearly infinitely, it’s never going to matter much in the big picture of the deficit. I’m no great fan of the current set-up in the academic journal-publishing world, but however much I might feel in my most extreme moods that journals could just go away, it’s honestly not worth quibbling about the cheap ones. If you’re worried about budget, just worry about the big tickets.

So let’s think about one big budget item: $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt. And more aid from other sources. That’s a reasonably big chunk of change for a single country. What does it buy us?

As far as I can tell, it’s a down payment on long-term hatred for the United States. An advance on the anger after some kind of revolution or uprising, paid without fail year after year after year. Is there anyone still stupid enough to think that had we only given more money to the Shah of Iran every year he was in power, somehow that would have compensated his people adequately to tolerate his torture, his secret police, his corruption? Assuming, of course, that you could have made sure that the additional money would have gone to the people, rather than to buy another feather in the Peacock Throne.

Is this on the list of possible cuts drafted by the Republican Study Group? No. What’s on it? Economic assistance to Egypt. I’ll give some of the most intense Tea Party advocates this much: they’re willing to go at the military budget, too. But the criteria always has to be something other than, “Do I like this? Support this?” It really should be, “What gives me a lot for a little? And what costs a lot in relation to the overall budget for almost no gain (or worse, for a loss)?”

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