THE SCRIPT didn't call for it, but budget director David Stockman upset a congressional hearing this week by taking on two lobbies accustomed to gentler treatment: the military and the farmers. Mr. Stockman's critics may see his remarks as a gaffe -- another example of the budget director's penchant for getting into hot water. However, in political life, as The New Republic's TRB once cogently and truly pointed out, "a 'gaffe' occurs not when a politician lies, but when he tells the truth."
Let us acknowledge that both farmers and the military have legitimate claims for special treatment -- farmers because they are the hard-working embodiment of a cherished if fading tradition in American life; military personnel because, in the service of the country, they have agreed to submit to a degree of discipline and potential danger not faced in most other professions. That does not mean, however, that the benefits that taxpayers provide them must go unexamined or unaltered if these benefits have grown too expensive or no longer work as intended.
When Mr. Stockman called the military retirement system a "scandal," he was only sharpening criticism of a system that already has come from such disparate sources as a 1984 Pentagon compensation review commission, the Heritage Foundation and the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Les Aspin. A good retirement system is a helpful recruiting feature for the armed forces -- although few who join the services stay around long enough to draw benefits. But the current system is not only very costly, it also defeats its own purpose: By offering generous benefits after 20 years, it encourages skilled personnel to leave and pursue lucrative careers in the defense industry and elsewhere.
Similarly self-defeating is the elaborate system of price supports, acreage controls, irrigation subsidies and so on that, as Mr. Stockman pointed out, has poured $60 billion into the farm sector in the past five years. Imprudent borrowing back when land prices were soaring has put many small and medium-sized farmers in financial trouble now. Mr. Stockman questions why these producers deserve a bailout by the taxpayers while far larger numbers of failing entrepreneurs and displaced workers get none. That's a question worth debating. But whatever the resolution, extending current farm subsidies -- which primarily benefit large farmers and actually hurt farm sales by encouraging production on marginal land and driving up export prices -- is not the answer to their problems.
TRB's rules of Gaffability now call for a "quick round of lying" by everyone involved in order to put the debate back on its accustomed course. As you read the rebuttals and clarifications today, you will see that this round already has begun.