The budget talks are foundering on a Republican demand that the federal government start predicting the deficit 30 years into the future. The immigration bill is hung up over Republican demands that the government achieve full control over the 1,969 mile border between the United States and Mexico. But the Obama administration’s had some good news on its spying: Republicans are pretty comfortable with the federal government tracking our calls and mining our e-mails.
Here’s what I don’t understand: How can Republicans who think themselves skeptical of the federal government also believe it capable of predicting the path of the economy 30 years into the future while locking down the border and picking through all electronic communications?
Government: Not so good at predicting the future
Take the budget. Politico reports that “White House chief of staff Denis McDonough privately met with more than a dozen Senate Republicans who outlined their view of the budget picture over the next three decades instead of over the 10-year window.”
The political calculus behind this is clear: The budget deficit looks much worse over 30 years than it does over 10, lending urgency to Republican efforts to cut federal spending. But the implied confidence in the government’s powers of prognostication is extraordinary.
Consider the budget projections of just the past few years. In 2001, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the government would wipe out its debt in 2006 and be $2.3 trillion in the black by 2011. But after a recession, the Bush tax cuts, 9/11, two wars and the financial crisis, the reality was rather different: We were $10.1 trillion in the red.
Projections can go awry over even much shorter time periods. Between February and May of this year, the CBO revised its deficit estimates down by $600 billion over the next decade.
If we can’t get 10-year, and even one-year, projections right, how can anyone possibly believe that 30-year projections will be worth the paper they’re printed on?
A core insight of conservatism is that central planning fails because economies are too complicated for governments to effectively predict. But if you believe the government can usefully predict the path of the economy not just over the next 10 years but over 30, then you should be begging the government to intervene more directly in economic affairs.
Securing borders ain't easy
Perhaps you think that the government, while farsighted, is incompetent. But then you certainly wouldn’t think it able to manage a task as difficult as locking down the Southwest border.
Attaining total control of a border is hard. As the Council of Foreign Relations’ Edward Alden has written:
The most secure border in modern history was probably the Cold War border between East and West Germany. To keep their people from leaving — logistically much easier than keeping others from entering — the East Germans built more than 700 watchtowers, sprinkled more than a million antipersonnel mines, created a deep no-man's zone of barbed wire and electric fencing, and deployed nearly 50 guards per square mile with shoot-to-kill orders. Even so, about 1,000 people each year somehow managed to find a way across.
We’re not planning anything nearly so secure between the United States and Mexico. Yet many Republicans are demanding total or near-total control over the border before agreeing to anything further on immigration reform.
Senator John Cornyn, for instance, proposed an amendment requiring 100 percent “situational awareness” of everything that happens on the border as well as 90 percent apprehension of everyone who attempts to cross. A government able to manage that is a government that can manage almost anything.
You've got mail, and they have your mail, too
Even if you believe the government is far-sighted and competent enough to manage difficult tasks, you may still think it insufficiently trustworthy. How then to explain the muted Republican response to the news that the National Security Agency is picking through our phone calls, e-mails and Web searches?
“It is absolutely overseen by the legislature, the judicial branch and the executive branch, [and] has lots of protections built in,” Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, assured CNN. Be that as it may, cross-branch oversight of the NSA is far more limited than cross-branch oversight of, well, anything else the government does.
For instance, members of the intelligence committees can’t tell the public what they hear in classified briefings. They have no way to alert the public of activities they consider abusive. Members of the finance or health committees are under no such restrictions. If the oversight of the NSA is sufficient to trust a secretive agency with our everyday communications, then surely the oversight of the rest of government is sufficient.
Many of these positions, it should be said, are shared by Democrats. But of course Democrats are traditionally more trusting of federal action.
The question is how Republicans who think the government farsighted enough to peer 30 years into our economic future, competent enough to lock down 2,000 miles of sand and brush and trustworthy enough to oversee a massive domestic surveillance program can keep alive the fiction that they are truly skeptical of the government. Or are they just skeptical of government when it's doing things they don't like?