What scares me about the sequester debate

It’s a lot worse than you think.

Why doesn’t President Barack Obama administer the sequester rather than allow the clumsy law to be applied automatically? When asked, the president, as is his habit, offered the nation a false dilemma: “Let’s see,” he shot back, “Do I close funding for the disabled kid or the poor kid.” (The real choice, of course, is this: “Let’s see, Do I close funding for the disabled kid or a crony’s green energy subsidy or a useless weapons system or a …” but I digress.)

This is the sort of frenzy swirling around the sequester, and it tells us plenty about how Washington works — or, more accurately, how it doesn’t work. Yet most people are missing the vital takeaway here and it has nothing to do with short-term economics or politics. If Obama wins this debate, it means that most Americans have probably accepted the popular fiction that high levels of deficit spending are indispensable to prosperity. If that’s true, we’re in real trouble.

After all, that would mean Americans have fallen for one of the most misleading words used in journalism and politics these days: “cuts.” The sequester, like other imaginary catastrophes in Washington, doesn’t cut federal spending as much as it curbs the future growth in spending set by baseline projections concocted by government economists. In this case, government is on track to spend $2.4 trillion more a decade from now than it does today — which, in Obama’s Washington, qualifies as “austerity.”

Do Americans really believe, as Democrats argue, that a $16 trillion economy can be knocked to the ground over a $45 billion cut this year? Do we accept that the sequester means never-ending lines at airports, even though we spend more now on TSA security than we did two years ago? Do we believe that the mentally ill need to be kicked into the cold, unforgiving city streets when billions are being wasted on an array of silly programs? Do we believe Attorney General Eric Holder, who warns the sequester will make the country “less safe” though two wars are winding down?

Obama has added over $5 trillion to the national debt, made countless future promises to the citizenry and presided over four years of stagnation. Can Americans possibly believe that a minor curb in spending will be catastrophic? If they do, imagine what a debate will look like when we run out of money.

Debt is already hurting us. Two recent studies — one by the International Monetary Fund and another by the National Bureau of Economic Research (brought to my attention by the Heritage Foundation) — have found that when nations reach higher-debt status, their growth rates decline. High levels of debt will soon mean higher interest rates and a weaker economy.

It seems without a cataclysmic event Washington won’t take debt seriously. So expect a cataclysmic event. When the hurt really comes, it won’t come in the form of a piddling cut in spending. We often hear the already-daunting $16 trillion number thrown around, when, in fact, once we consider all the promises the federal government has made to citizens that it won’t be able to keep, that number begins to hit the insurmountable $35-$50 trillion range — or more.

With one impotent party (which, when in power, typically exacerbates the problem) and another party that treats spending as a sacrament, any escape from this fate seems unlikely. The only genuine fix would be to reform entitlement programs, a prospect almost no Democrat will touch and few Republicans have the stomach for.

So, yes, it’s a lot worse than you think.

David Harsanyi is author of “Obama’s Four Horsemen: The Disasters Unleashed by Obama Reelection.”