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U.S. Budget Cuts Are Stunningly Blind

A guide to the sequester for the legitimately baffled.

If you thought “sequester,” the American method of government budget-cutting, sounds incredibly stupid, you’re wrong. It’s stupider than that.

What will the sequester do?
What will the sequester do? Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

To achieve the noble goal of reducing federal spending, the sequester that goes into effect at midnight demands blind, across-the-board budget cuts of nine percent or more from nearly all agencies. A most ignoble method.

Let’s compare that to an overweight person, who has failed to diet. The person really must reduce by ten percent. So if you weigh 180 lbs, 18 pounds has to go. As your punishment for not dieting, the doctors call for surgical removal totaling 18 pounds from all parts of your body.

Most of the excess weight may be in your belly (like me), but only a tenth of your belly fat goes, perhaps a couple of pounds. Maybe a pound off the butt, leaving 15 pounds to come off elsewhere.

Sequester surgery takes a tenth of everything. Which one of your fingers would you like to lose? Which toe? Which bones? Which part of your eyeball? Your tongue? And if a purist points out that the sequester cuts only two percent of Medicare, the doctors will agree that since health is so important, they’ll remove only two percent of your heart and brain. (Not plaque in the blood vessels, though; that’s just inefficiency.)

That’s how stupid it is. Indeed, Congress designed the sequester to be so stupid that no sane government would do it, just as no sane doctor would perform what I just described.

Now Washington is doing it anyway, so Washington must be  . . . follow the logic.

Where and how this makes a difference to the quality of great U.S. places remains to be seen, but if the sequester is not changed, it will. Start with whatever air travel disruptions discourage beneficial tourism, which in turn damages businesses and employees who serve those tourists when they arrive. More significant is the impact on destinations themselves. Tightened budgets already restrict most federal programs that support the places we love to visit, hope to visit, or live in.

I refer to federal support for conservation, historic preservation, museums, rural poverty relief, arts and humanities, national parks and federal lands, coastal protection, scenic beautification, and so on. National Scenic Byways, Preserve America, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Endowment for the Arts, National Landscape Conservation System—these are just examples. For many of these agencies, such relative “nonessentials” as travel, conferences, interpretive programs, grant-making, etc. have already been cut. Over the past few years the national parks, for instance, have had to rely increasingly  substantial volunteer labor and donor contributions.

These federal programs provide quality of life, resources, and experiences far beyond their cost. Like organs of sight and hearing, of touch, smell, and taste, their benefits greatly exceed their weight. Yes, our destinations can survive with nine-tenths of a tongue, with 90 percent vision, with two percent less brain, but quality of place is degraded. The travel experience is degraded. Local economies are degraded.

Apparently Washington politicians have actually removed most of their collective brains. They should have stopped at ten percent.

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