In the short run, the two parties have run into an absurd standoff, where Republicans demand that President Obama produce an offer of higher spending cuts, and Obama replies that Republicans should say what spending cuts they want, and Republicans insist that Obama should try to guess what kind of spending cuts they would like.
Reporters are presenting this as a kind of negotiating problem, based on each side’s desire for the other to stick its neck out first. But it actually reflects a much more fundamental problem than that. Republicans think government spending is huge, but they can’t really identify ways they want to solve that problem, because government spending is not really huge. That is to say, on top of an ideological gulf between the two parties, we have an epistemological gulf. The Republican understanding of government spending is based on hazy, abstract notions that don’t match reality and can’t be translated into a workable program.
There really isn’t money to be cut everywhere. The United States spends way less money on social services than do other advanced countries, and even that low figure is inflated by our sky-high health-care prices. The retirement benefits to programs like Social Security are quite meager. Public infrastructure is grossly underfunded.
The Bowles-Simpson plan wound up punting on all the major questions because it simply couldn’t bridge that gulf between perception and reality. That’s why, in lieu of any ability to identify government functions to eliminate, the plan simply pretended the federal government could have everybody do a lot more work for less pay.
The real domestic savings in Bowles-Simpson came from building on Obamacare’s steps to save money by holding down the growth of health-care costs and to cut defense spending by pretty steep levels. But these turned out to be ideas that alienated rather than satisfied Republicans. So basically it turned out to be impossible to find real spending cuts that Republicans wanted.
When the only cuts on the table would inflict real harm on people with modest incomes and save small amounts of money, that is a sign that there’s just not much money to save. It’s not just that Republicans disagree with this; they don’t seem to understand it. The absence of a Republican spending proposal is not just a negotiating tactic but a howling void where a specific grasp of the role of government ought to be. And negotiating around that void is extremely hard to do. The spending cuts aren’t there because they can’t be found.