Political Animal


March 01, 2013 12:15 PM Sequester: Stupid, But Not So Bad?

By Ed Kilgore

Matt Yglesias is right: as recently as a few months ago the prevailing attitude among progressives is that sequestration, in the very unlikely event it happened, would be worse for the priorities of the Right than of the Left, since (a) it would hit defense spending pretty hard at a time when the most prominent Republicans (notably 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney) were calling for more money for the Pentagon, and (b) the most important progressive priorities, Social Security, Medicare benefits, Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), and basic unemployment benefits, were placed off-limits.

Matt thinks we should still feel that way, and is pushing back against the “just repeal it” line that Paul articulated in the last post.

Sequestration is cuts liberals can live with but conservatives can’t, which should bring conservatives to the table to discuss a more balanced approach even though conservatives are more favorably disposed to cuts in the abstract. But Democrats seem reluctant to actually articulate the point that most defense spending is useless from the standpoint of national defense, so they’ve pivoted their spin to the idea that the sequester cuts will cause the public such intolerable pain as to force the GOP back to the table. The original spin, however, strikes me as much more plausible than the new spin.

Matt acknowledges that this sunnier (or at least partly-cloudier) attitude doesn’t take into account the macroeconomic impact of spending cuts, which is why he limits his positive feelings about sequestration to “a cheer or two.” But I would demur at least in part to his suggestion that the sequester’s defense cuts are unambiguously a fine thing (aside from the negative economic impact of immediate cuts) from the point of view of any Democrat who’s not afraid of being called “weak on defense.” Yes, a significantly smaller defense budget is consistent with actual national security needs and is essential for long-term fiscal discipline. But the sequester does not demand, invite or even allow the kind of reconsideration of national security priorities—a strategy for dealing with concrete interests and threats and recalibrating the roles and missions that must be performed to implement it—we most need a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War. It’s hammer-headed by design. Progressive cheers over lower defense spending as an abstract proposition make no more sense than conservative cheers over lower domestic spending as an abstract proposition.

Now it’s true that the sudden willingness of most Republicans to accept lower levels of defense spending could produce the kind of debate we need in order for this strategic reconsideration of national security to occur. But that’s well down the road, and it’s just as likely that sequestration will give a fresh impetus to those on the Right calling for a more aggressive national security posture on grounds that we can’t afford “containment” of alleged security threats. So it’s not that clear the furloughing of DoD civilian employees, the disruption of supply cycles, or reductions in the gross value of defense contracts, is going to be some sort of blow for peace. Progressives do, as Matt suggests, need to articulate why we think defense spending is too high. The country is ready for that case to be made. But going along with the fiction that all defense spending is the same isn’t the way to do it.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Dave on March 01, 2013 12:33 PM:

    Why are "the most important progressive priorities, Social Security, Medicare benefits, Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), and basic unemployment benefits"? Do progressives not care about the thousands of other things that government does that helps those of us who aren't old or poor???

    This is what infuriates me, the idea that as a progressive I'm only really supposed to care about the money spent on the safety net... I (and I suspect most progressives) care also about all the nice things that government does to make middle-class life good for people under 65 too!!!

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 01, 2013 12:48 PM:

    ...sequestration, in the very unlikely event it happened, would be worse for the priorities of the Right than of the Left...

    Case in point: Watching Jan Brewer's head explode about ICES releasing low-risk illegal immigrants.

    More of this, please!!!!

  • Menthol on March 01, 2013 12:54 PM:

    Well, it's no picnic for us in the academic scientific research community, I'll tell you that. There's a lot of squeezing going on.

    I agree with Dave. Maybe it's selfish of me, but it's pretty damn clear that this country is not making necessary investments (infrastructure, technology, health research, education) for its future. I still would prefer that the very well off pay a higher tax rate, but I could actually live with some small cuts to my future SS and Medicare benefits if the savings were spent to help us prepare for modernizing the economy. We spend too much on the elderly relative to the young. That is not the profile of a country with a bright future.

  • Dave on March 01, 2013 1:10 PM:

    Yeah @ Menthol - It just galls me when I read a "liberal" or "progressive" pundit or blogger tell me that I should make peace with sequesters or budget cut deals or whatever that *only* target discretionary domestic spending... because "our" true liberal/progressive goals of shielding those with less are maintained.

    Yes, I do believe that the weak among us need protection... but that doesn't mean that perfectly fine middle-class people don't deserve at least some of our tax dollars spent on things we need, like better infrastructure, education/research and generally programs that make middle class life a little less subject to the whims of our corporate overlords.

    Unfortunately, the whole sequestration issue is often framed as "the right will suffer military cuts and we saved the poor/old so The Progressives aren't doing badly!" It will really suck when the Federal Govt is doing nothing BUT providing an army and safety net programs... as we keep creeping to such a future, why wouldn't the middle class continue to defect to the GOP for promises of lower taxes? ("Well I'm not getting anything I want for my tax dollars, might as well refund them back to me.")

  • pamelabrown53 on March 01, 2013 1:31 PM:

    I'm with Menthol on this. I'm a lifelong liberal but am blessed/cursed(?) with a strong pragmatic streak.

    Without the investments in infrastructure, education and research the our future is being sacrificed including the poor.

    It irritates me that with no national discussion on what is really necessary for a strong but logical national defense IN THE 21st CENTURY is a rallying cry for f#%k the pentagon. These are the same "progressives" pissed that Obama didn't nominate a Democrat for Sec. of Defense.

  • Sue on March 01, 2013 2:16 PM:

    So write to every one of your so-called reps and to POTUS in support of the Progressive Caucusand their beautiful, moral, deeply Americanbudget proposal.

    And remind him that repeating your actions and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

  • Peter C on March 01, 2013 2:24 PM:

    Well, the sequester is both bad and stupid. Blanket cuts are bad. Cuts during a downturn are stupid. The sequester was intended as the doomsday threat which compelled negotiation; it was DESIGNED to be both bad and stupid.

    The main problem is we can't even have a logical discussion about any of this; we're stuck with a shouting match. The Republicans never get beyond a simple "SPENDING OUT OF CONTROL!" message and when it is our turn to speak, they cram their fingers in their ears and chant "LA, LA, LA, I Can't Hear You, LA, LA!".

    I also can't convince myself that the Republicans have any interest in solving problems. They see 'opportunities' in the situation (Hey! We can use the crisis to kill off Social Security and privatize Medicare! Woo hoo!), but I don't believe the really actually care about the national debt. That's why the Ryan budget eviscerated social programs and still didn't cut the deficit significantly (opting instead for tax cuts for the wealthy). For them, the national debt is merely a 'credible rationale' for the ideological actions they want to pursue. If the national debt were really a problem for them, they'd approach it with evidence and analysis and not just dogma and vitriol. Dogma and vitriol are the tools you use to gain power, not to solve problems.

    Our flaw is that we're trying to solve the 'problem' instead of win the struggle. We're stuck in the paradigm of two parties with different approaches to solving common problems. They don't care about the common problems, they just want to control government and marginalize us. They see us as the enemy and not as a partner.

  • c u n d gulag on March 01, 2013 2:34 PM:

    HELL YES, the military needs to be cut!

    But not in some stupid way.

    There are a lot of jobs in nearly every Congressional district, and we need a 10 year plan that, while cutting the military budget by a hefty percentage, is able to redirect the existing jobs into other fields and areas.

    Unfortunately, we don't seem to have a lot of long-range thinkers anymore, since they've been driven out of government by Republicans (and Democrats - let's not kid ourselves) over the last 30 years.

  • John Robert BEHRMAN on March 01, 2013 3:54 PM:

    Actually, the Defense Department has substantial "re-programming" authority, sequester or no. And, defense contracts have all sorts of "convenience of the government" clauses that make precision cuts possible.

    And, from a military readiness standpoint, exercising such authority is a very good idea.

  • tz on March 01, 2013 4:13 PM:

    The real problem is that the conservative economic theory is complete nonsense. It fails every time it is applied. But conservatives, especially the tea party nuts, refuse to accept that and low taxes and small gov't is the only thing to do and especially no compromise with liberals. So unfortunately, we have to go through this until people stop voting for the tea people and they lose the power to stop legislation.

    Instead of asking what's the matter with Kansas, we need to start blaming Kansas.