The ‘easy way’ to balance the budget
As a general rule, any plan that its creator bills as the “easy way” to balance the budget will either turn out to not be easy, to not balance the budget, or both. For example, see Paul Light's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today. Light, who’s a pretty serious government management expert, has a plan to cut $1 trillion over 10 years. That alone is not enough to balance the budget, but it's a big step in that direction, so I won't fault him for that. And some of the steps he proposes really are no-brainers. If we can get $300 billion by cracking down on delinquent income taxes, as Light proposes, then we should go for it.
But most of Light's savings comes, basically, from sticking it to federal workers. He wants to raise $100 billion by firing middle managers and cutting political appointments, $500 billion by freezing federal hiring and $300 billion by letting contract employees go. He wants to eliminate seniority-based pay increases in favor of pay for performance. Now, these may be good ideas. The devil's in the details on things like pay for performance, but if implemented well, it seems like a good plan. But they're not “easy.” They're not easy politically. Federal employees are unionized and would fight changes to the pay scheme hard, and mass layoffs even harder.
And they're not easy morally. Cutting federal jobs could be the best of bad options, and I'd certainly prefer it to cuts to, say, food stamps or WIC, but letting go hundreds of thousands of people in a recession is a pretty big deal. Light's plan, like any other credible deficit reduction plans, requires a lot of political heavy lifting and some unfortunate sacrifices. It's who should be forced to make those sacrifices (federal workers, middle-class and wealthy taxpayers, safety net beneficiaries, etc.), and in what proportion, that's the hard question. We're not going to get anywhere by trying to avoid them altogether.