OK, Pigeon Forge, I hear you.
Recently, in a column datelined Baltimore, I wrote that, given Americans' domestic spending desires and defense spending needs, the nation is undertaxed. In response, W. M. Buescher of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., has written to say that what the nation really needs is fewer columnists named George F. Will.
"We are," he writes, "retired people trying to live on a small fixed-income pension plus Social Security. S.S. has an annual CL (cost-of-living) raise which comes close to paying the increased cost of car and house insurance. . . . We paid for our kids' education--and then paid for your kids' education too if they went to public school. We pay for our car, but we also pay for mass transit in Baltimore. . . . I'm sorry if Baltimore is in trouble. Believe me, the people here in Pigeon Forge didn't get Baltimore in trouble."
I believe you, Mr. Buescher. I also believe that as Pigeon Forge goes, so goes the nation. Congress can expect to hear from millions like Buescher when it quits complaining about the deficit and starts to do something--something like freeze his Social Security increase.
Whether people like Buescher should bear any burden of new revenue-raising measures is debatable (although not, perhaps, in Pigeon Forge). But the need to raise new revenues is indisputable. Political demands and fiscal capabilities are radically unsynchronized: the government is unable to finance the services that the public is unwilling to forgo.
This is also true below the federal level. Cities and states must soon spend more than $100 billion just to repair water systems, roads, bridges, and waste treatment and transit systems. But because of political resistance to, and many statutory limitations on, property taxes, states are increasingly reliant on sales and corporation taxes, which are sensitive to economic cycles. IRAs, and the lower tax on investments, have diminished investors' interest in state and local tax-free bonds.
At the federal level, cutting domestic spending substantially--which means, practically, cutting entitlement programs--is even more unpalatable politically than raising taxes. The wish for a painless place to cut the budget is giving rise to the thought that the defense budget is such a place. Here we go again.
Many conservatives came to town convinced that the budget could be balanced painlessly just by eliminating "waste, fraud and abuse" from domestic programs. There would be no awkward political choices, if government would just get tough with wasters and cheaters. This theory cloaked a failure of political nerve. No one wanted to tell the country the dreary truth, which was, and is, this: the nation has made many promises to many groups on the basis of unrealized and, for the foreseeable future, unrealizable expectations of economic and revenue growth.
Today, the rapid crumbling of the hard-won constituency for adequate defense spending is speeded by soothing assurances. It is said that the defense budget can be cut substantially-- the figure $30 billion is bandied about -- without cutting anything but "waste." We are invited to believe that America's military got fat during the last two decades, despite the fact that defense spending, as a portion of GNP, was cut in half. But consider some facts.
For two nuclear aircraft carriers, the administration is requesting obligational authority for $7 billion. But that will take eight years to spend.
Building two together achieves economies through "parallel construction." Deferring one would save $3.5 billion in obligational authority--but just $25 million in fiscal 1983 outlays. And building the second carrier later would cost taxpayers $750 million in lost economies.
Suppose Congress were to cut from the 1983 budget both carriers, the B1 bomber, the MX missile, the M1 tank, the infantry fighting vehicle, the attack helicopter, the Lamps-III anti-submarine warfare program, and every F16 and all F18s. That mortgaging of our future security would cut only about $5 billion in outlays from a deficit that may approach $150 billion. And $5 billion is about what bumper crops may add to the cost of price support programs. We can afford those, but not military procurements?
Killing every defense procurement costing $500 million or more would save $49 billion in obligational authority-- but just $6.5 billion in 1983 outlays. So if substantial cuts are to come from defense, they must come from what has been scanted for years--readiness, including training, maintenance, spare parts, munitions. This while some of America's forward deployed units have only one week's supply of crucial munitions. Such cuts make mockeries of several treaty commitments.
So, Pigeon Forge, listen up. You and Baltimore--and the rest of us--are in one thing together: danger.