The Left’s Split Personality On Budget And Environmental Policy

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official
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The left has a split personality regarding budget and environmental policy. On the budget, the analytics are straightforward, the data extensive, and the factors involved relatively basic. On the environment, the very opposite is true of climate change. Yet the left is in determined denial about the former, and equally adamant in its certainty on the latter.

Federal spending is inexorably increasing and soon threatens not only Washington’s budget, but America’s economy. Federal spending has risen from 3.4 percent of GDP in 1930 to 20.4 percent today. The Congressional Budget Office projects that by 2024, it will be 22.1 percent, and by 2039, 25.9 percent, of GDP – both well above the last 40 years’ average of 20.5 percent.

Hidden within this overall increase is the real driver – non-defense spending in general, and entitlement (or mandatory) spending in particular. In 1974, defense spending was 5.4 percent of GDP, reaching 6 percent in 1986 during Reagan’s rearming of America. Today, it is estimated at 3.5 percent and the CBO projects it at just 2.7 percent going forward. In contrast, the rest of federal spending has gone from 12.7 percent of GDP in 1974, to 16.9 percent today – and is estimated to grow to 23.2 percent by 2039.

The decline in defense spending has masked a rise in social spending. However, this reduction in defense spending cannot continue – increasing global threats promise increases in the future. The problem is that the increase in social spending will continue, regardless.

The dynamic causing federal spending’s increase is relatively simple. Politics increases subsidies of public services. Subsidies increase usage of government services. And government services are delivered by a government system devoid of competition – the means of reducing cost in the private sector.

The data on federal spending is robust. The entire history of the welfare state only extends back eight decades – from the New Deal to today. In it, we can easily identify spending’s inflection points: the New Deal, the Great Society social programs, and the entrance of Baby Boomers into these entitlement spending programs

Also, there is no technological “escape hatch” for this increase. Despite enormous technological advances over the last eight decades, the federal budget has increased enormously. If anything, these advances have helped fuel spending – just the opposite of what has occurred with private sector costs.

Yet the left continues to deny, or at least fail to act on this reality. The contrast towiththe left’s position on climate change could not be greater.

Here actual data is often contradictory and sometimes of dubious value. The amount of years for which records exist is miniscule versus the literal millennia – for which records do not exist and proxy data is substituted – against which temperature volatility must be compared, in order to test the hypothesis that human activity is responsible for climate change.

Second, the global climate system being measured is far more complex than the budget. Earth’s temperatures are the product of interplay between innumerable forces – such as the atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, emissions, and undetermined others. Measuring any one in isolation is difficult. Measuring how they react upon each other is even more so.

Put simply, there is far less hard data, for a far shorter relative period, to assess a far more complex subject.

Yet for the left, there is greater certainty about the inherently uncertain climate change hypothesis, but outright denial of the certain crisis from federal spending continuing to outpace the economy’s growth.

When a paradox exists, its origin is often internal – from our inability to see the obvious. In this case the obvious fact is that the left is not concerned with objective reality. It just wants to increase government’s ability to allocate resources.

Addressing unsustainable spending requires decreasing it, but that would mean decreasing the government’s share of resources to allocate. In contrast, environmental policy, as pursued by the left, has resulted in greatly increasing governments’ ability to control resources.

A common thread runs through the conundrum after all. For the left, the end justifies the means, and they have no intention of ending their means of justifying their end – regardless of the contradictions in their approach to fiscal and environmental policy.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.