By Ezra Klein
The Washington Post
Let's get something straight: Sequestration doesn't prove that the government is broken or that it can't get anything done. If anything, it proves the opposite. This is the American government working. Compromising, even.
In summer 2011, both parties came together and agreed that they wanted to reduce the deficit. If they couldn't compromise on a more appealing policy, then they would use sequestration, which was itself a compromise. The plan called for deep and across-the-board cuts in defense and discretionary domestic spending, with no consideration given to merit. The two parties could, at any moment, choose to end sequestration by passing a one-sentence law repealing it. That they're not passing that law — or some alternative — is a choice, evidence that the parties prefer sequestration to any other option.
What sequestration proves is that the U.S. government is dumb. There have been three major deficit-reduction packages in the past three years. The first passed in 2011 and set limits on discretionary spending over the next decade. Next came the tax increases in January's "fiscal cliff" deal, by which part of the tax code reverted to its state before the administration of President George W. Bush. Now we have sequestration, with automatic, across-the-board cuts.
The total deficit reduction in these three policies is well over $3 trillion, which gets close to stabilizing our debt-to-gross domestic product ratio for the next decade (although not thereafter). What all these policies have in common is that they're brain-dead ways to reduce the deficit.
Michael Greenstone, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Hamilton Project, anticipated that. So about six months ago, he approached 15 experts and asked them for their best policy proposals, which had to meet two conditions. First, they had to reduce the budget deficit. Second, they had to have "broader positive effects," such as helping the economy, increasing government efficiency, slowing global warming — that sort of thing. "The point is we can do good for the budget and do good for the longer-run American economy," Greenstone said.