Promoting the SAFE agenda

Smaller, more focused, less costly government is a will-o’-the-wisp, far more easily pursued than caught. Despite the efforts of SAFE and likeminded groups, the country has been moving in the other direction for most of the past half century.

Are we wasting our time? In an entry written 7+ years ago, we argued that the pendulum would eventually swing back in SAFE’s direction – as it had started to do in the late 1990s. Better days ahead: fiscal visionaries should persevere,

As for the ability of fiscal visionaries to “outwit, outplay and outlast” (from the TV show, Survivor) the ideological opposition, there is no reason we should be at a disadvantage. Our ideas are more than competitive, the opposition’s strategy of enlarging the government by stealth is rather obvious, and the big government model is unsustainable.

But instead of this hoped-for change in direction, there would be more deficit spending and debt than ever – a tidal wave of burdensome new regulations – and one case after another of executive branch overreach, which shifts power from the members of Congress to unelected bureaucrats who can’t readily be held accountable.

Perhaps it’s time to reflect on the strategies SAFE and other fiscal visionaries have been employing. What have we done right, and what could be done better?

A. Be proactive - The natural tendency of conservatives is to resist change, or perhaps even work to reverse a few changes already made. Change is inevitable in any society, however, and simply trying to maintain the status quo by playing defense can’t and won’t work for long. SAFE members et al. might do well, therefore, to reinvent themselves as “fiscal visionaries” rather than continuing to act as “fiscal conservatives.” How to win: be proactive, not reactive, 10/29/07.

To bring about constructive change, it’s necessary to foster awareness of major problems, propose realistic solutions, and get action. Here is the process we envisioned to head off a looming fiscal crisis (which was already being publicized by a national “Fiscal Wakeup Tour” and other efforts). Opportunities abound for fiscal visionaries,

•Awareness - Just as environmentalists have been able to stoke apprehension about the dangers of global warming, fiscal visionaries need to convince the public that the government is headed for bankruptcy (taking the country with it) unless major changes are made. This should be easy, we thought, as the fiscal meltdown threat is more imminent than global warming and the solutions are clear-cut (vs. conjectural).

•Solutions - Fiscal visionaries should view the looming fiscal crisis as an opportunity to reconsider how the government uses the resources placed at its disposal and not just an exercise in mechanically bringing taxes and expenditures into balance. Certain government activities are truly needed, such as capable military forces and the judicial system; other activities could be eliminated with little ill effect. A number of targeted spending cut opportunities are identified on the
Spending page of SAFE’s website.

•Action – Looking ahead to the November 2008 elections, we urged fiscal visionaries to pitch in. Determine the presidential primary date(s) in your state and turn out to vote for the candidate of your choice. Once the two major party candidates have been effectively selected, start urging said candidates (via letters to the editor, letters to your legislators, comments on the Internet, contacts with influential friends, etc.) to spell out – clearly and in detail – how, if elected, they would plan to get the government’s books balanced and keep them that way. If the volume of such comments was large enough, the presidential candidates (and some congressional candidates as well) would start discussing fiscal issues with unprecedented openness.

The debate about the fiscal problem, healthcare, etc. during the ensuing campaign was a distinct letdown. Indeed, it was often difficult to distinguish between the positions of the two presidential finalists, although we did our best. What would you like, central planning or an eclectic mix?

Concerned about developments during the early months of the new administration, SAFE redoubled its efforts. We sent an unprecedented number of letters to legislators, testified at one of Senator Tom Carper’s “listening” sessions on healthcare, wrote lots of letters to the editor, participated in Delaware “tea party” events, and joined in the September 12 March on Washington. Nothing ventured, nothing gained,

Heck, we were just getting started!

B. Know the audience – Many Americans are ill informed about the issues of the day, and their thinking about economic issues may be systematically biased (see below). Getting through to “irrational” people, 9/17/07.
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Don’t think people can be won over to our viewpoint simply by “educating them,” however, because their lack of agreement is often based on emotional versus strictly logical considerations.

It is easy to pull the public’s heartstrings about an unfortunate child who needs very costly medical care and has no healthcare insurance. One would be hard pressed to generate the same level of emotion about balancing the government’s budget.

Instead of spending all their time talking about overall deficit numbers that are difficult to comprehend and devoid of emotional content, fiscal visionaries may need to challenge ill-considered government policies in terms the general public can relate to.

One tack is to dwell on the disaster that lies ahead if the fiscal problem is allowed to continue festering. Look what’s going on in Greece right now; that will be us in another few years and there definitely won’t be anyone to bail the United States out!

So many people are warning of imminent disasters these days, however, that such messages tend to be tuned out – especially when there is no identifiable date for the predicted fiscal meltdown. And even if convinced of the coming collapse, Americans may not buy our solutions (such as targeted spending cuts) versus other ideas (higher taxes on the rich). It might be helpful, therefore, to also point out the practical benefits of the SAFE agenda. If all else fails, appeal to self-interest,

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Another approach is to stress the unintended consequences of past or proposed government programs, thereby underscoring the importance of basing policy decisions on realistic assessments. Economic stimulus program (anemic recovery) – minimum wage (fewer jobs) – government run healthcare (deteriorating service to make ends meet) – “cash for clunkers” (expensive used cars) – forced reduction in the use of fossil fuels (higher energy prices, little effect on global temperatures). Wishful thinking: a weak basis for government action, 8/3/09.

C. Accentuate the positive – As the 2012 presidential race began to heat up, we offered some suggestions for raising the level of the DC dialog about spending and tax issues. Fiscal visionaries should be positive when possible, 4/23/12.

•Don’t waffle – Instead of apologetically mumbling that “we can’t afford it,” there may be cases where a better argument is that Program X or Agency Y should be eliminated because it isn’t worth the cost.

•Don’t pander – When the president proposed higher taxes on the wealthy, e.g., by enacting the Buffet Rule (a bad idea for several reasons), House Republicans could have countered by starting work on a serious tax reform proposal. Instead they proposed their own bad idea, temporary small business tax relief that obviously wouldn’t do much to boost the economy.

•Don’t squabble – This suggestion was directed to both sides of the aisle, and the gist was that budget battles should be waged more honestly. “If most of the players are ducking the fiscal problem or hiding behind phony, politically motivated proposals, one would think they could at least interact with each other like adults.”

D. Be persistent – SAFE is interested in sound government policies, not politics as such, but economic issues are inherently political and our ideas are anathema to the other side. As an example, we reported an imaginary (but realistic) debate in which SAFE suggested that the best way to bring down the then high gasoline prices would be to develop more US petroleum resources and the other side responded with a barrage of phony arguments. Tip for fiscal visionaries: be persistent or get run over, 4/25/11.

•Change the subject – Bring back the windfall profits tax, eliminate tax breaks and alleged subsidies for oil companies, force conservation and more use of biofuels.

•Shift the blame – High gas prices might be due to the activities of other oil producing countries, US oil companies, or speculators. There should be an investigation.

•Get emotional – Break out the pictures of endangered sea lions if currently restricted areas are opened for oil and gas exploration; raise the specter of global warming even though carbon emissions from fossil fuels is not a function of price.

Other tactics to duck unwanted debates include deceptive slogans (e.g., “shared sacrifice” instead of let’s raise taxes); credibility attacks on opponents (accuse them of ideological bias or special interest support instead of responding to their ideas); stacked proceedings (don’t give opponents a chance to make their case); disruptive behavior (drown them out). Tips for fiscal visionaries: policies and politics are closely related,

E. Influence powerful people – If SAFE’s advocacy efforts have fallen short in this respect, it’s not for lack of trying. Between 2008 and 2013, we posted (and in two cases sent) four letters about the fiscal problem to all the members of Congress. SAFE’s latest letter to Congress [urging the members to balance the budget in three years, and thereafter keep it that way], 06/3/13 (text of letter at end of the blog entry).

We also sent numerous communications to smaller groups, e.g., a series of suggestions to members of the Fiscal Commission in 2010 (
12/6/10 recap); our views on issues involved in a fiscal showdown after the 2012 elections (RX for the fiscal cliff, 11/26/12); and comments on the Senate immigration “reform” bill, 6/25/13.

For all this effort on SAFE’s part, there were few responses and our recommendations were generally ignored.

One of the problems is that politicians tend to stop listening to the general public once they get elected, albeit continuing to talk with donors and lobbyists. Also, the members of Congress are often gridlocked, so the real power to lead change is increasingly vested in the White House.

SAFE’s most recent major letter was directed to the presidential candidates for 2016 (all of them) rather than to the members of Congress. We covered a wider spectrum of issues than in the past, and shifted from stating our position to asking the candidates pointed questions about where they stand. SAFE plans ahead for 2016,

We’re hoping to receive a few responses (none yet), but in any case will use the list of questions as a template for sizing up the candidates in coming months.

F. Aim higher – In one of SAFE’s more philosophical blog entries, we wrote about “four noble truths for fiscal visionaries.” Looking at things in a different way, 7/25/11.

ONE: Suffering exists – It’s not just the damage that will result if the fiscal problem continues to fester, but also our seeming inability to persuade others to take this threat seriously.

TWO: There are causes of suffering – Politicians need money and support to get elected. Special interests are looking for favors. Other visionaries have their own doomsday scenarios, which enable them to rationalize the torrent of government spending. The general public likes government programs and handouts so long as they think someone else will pay the bill. Fiscal visionaries fantasize about how the foregoing parties would act in an ideal world rather than trying to understand the world that exists.

THREE: Suffering can end – It is within our power to look at the world differently and choose a new path. But to do so we must abandon faulty perceptions and strategies that are not working.

FOUR: The path forward –There should be many ways to improve on our track record if we can escape from mindsets that are holding us back. Have we worked hard enough on connecting with the Millennials? Have we paid enough attention to what motivates our intellectual opponents? Are we missing opportunities for constructive collaboration? Let’s not give up on the politicians, some of whom are at least trying to do the right things. Without dumbing down our message, can we find ways to communicate it that are clearer, more obviously relevant to the public’s needs, and more compelling.

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All things considered, SAFE hasn’t done badly. Our agenda seems sound. We have worked hard to sell this agenda, learning and adapting along the way. But major challenges lie ahead, and it remains to be seen whether fiscal visionaries will have the will and skill to overcome them.

********** FEEDBACK**********

Congress needs to put some limits on the president, who is intentionally destroying our military. The ineffectual response to shooting attacks at recruitment centers in Tennessee was just one example.

And we’re in the biggest oil downturn since the 1980s, which is having a bad effect on my company’s business. As if things weren’t bad enough, Iran will evidently have a lot of excess oil (currently being hidden on
tankers) to unload under the nuclear deal. - Steel company executive in Texas

The administration proposal to impose punitive taxes on past and future offshore earnings is a very bad idea. It will only drive US companies to try and incorporate elsewhere (so-called “inversion” transactions), on top of a US corporate tax rate that is too high and current efforts to force up employee pay. – SAFE director

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