Sequester is theater but consequences are very real

Very early in his career, before he had a career, really, Andy Griffith narrated a comedy record entitled, “What it Was, Was Football.”

On the record label, the narrative was credited to Deacon Andy Griffith. It opens with a rural preacher who was accidentally swept up in a crowd and deposited in seats beside some sort of pasture with lines drawn on it. He goes on, in his unmistakable drawl, to describe what was going on there — without a clue, apparently, that it was a football game. It’s pretty funny, even today, even to those of us who love football.

It was difficult to watch the sequester performances this past week without thinking of that record and wondering how Deacon Griffith might have described what was “a-happening.” It was our good fortune, though, that someone else came along to explain things in a simple, direct manner.

Naming him as a straight talker might dim his chances for future TV employment. This past weekend, though, television broadcasters took a short break from the usual parade of “Sunday Smarties” to put someone on who knew what he was talking about and got to the point.

There was no country-boy drawl, and no comedy. What remained, though, was a crystal clear perspective and a valuable insight into the federal budget impasse. In just two words he correctly described exactly what was going on. “It’s theater,” he said.

It’s not accounting, not economics, not fiscal policy or even budgeting. It’s just theater. There are elements of reality in the situation, certainly, but they are obscured by the fog and stage lighting, because that is the nature, even the goal, of political theater.

It’s not only theater, it’s a revival. We have seen it many times. At the federal, state and local level, whenever a budget constraint of any sort interferes with the advance of government spending they break out the horror stories and scare the heck out of people.

At the local and state level, the scary stuff usually begins with public safety issues, with mass police layoffs being a favorite, and continues through hospital and school closures before ending in apocalyptic chaos.

At the federal level, as we see right now, the script is much the same. The specific horror stories are more accurate in some cases — our enemies really are out there — and less so in others, but the general progress of the script follows the identical formula. What’s different is the amount of media coverage and the money spent on staging the events.

In theory, a budget cut would be directly translated into a review and reordering of priorities. Managers would be forced to rethink what was mission critical, what was important, and what could be postponed or eliminated.

It is a healthy thing for organizations to do this once in a while. Seeing the value that reexamining priorities could have on effectiveness, management experts developed the concept of “zero-based budgeting” to use priority-setting as a financial fitness regimen for businesses.

There are precious few similarities, though, between this and the “Days of Our Sequester” performance we’ve been watching.

Just as “sequester” is not the usual name for a budget cut, this scheme dreamed up by the bi-partisan Congressional “super-committee” is not the usual way to resolve political differences — through negotiation and compromise. The super-committee created by Congress rarely met and resolved nothing.

Instead of negotiation and compromise it created a threat that was artificial and real at the same time, a blurring of the reality-theater line that now characterizes Washington, D.C., politics.

The budget cuts, now scheduled to go into effect on 1 March, were approved by a bi-partisan Congress and agreed to by the president, but their memory of their parenthood, apparently, has been erased. The transformation of these mutually agreed upon cuts into a completely politicized, “Days of Our Sequester” is a triumph of theater over reality.

Our economy isn’t theater, though. It is very real, and it isn’t as healthy as it needs to be to take on the challenges we face. We’ve got lethargic growth, serious unemployment problems, and a Federal Reserve with a record-setting $3 trillion balance sheet, inflated by unmarketable Treasury debt and questionable bank obligations. These are economic weaknesses that our enemies around the globe are all too eager to exploit.

We need to get to work on those weaknesses and not waste time with political theater. We have to convince the president and the Congress to stop their finger-pointing and realize how important this is. Sequestration would disappear if we had a real federal budget forged in reality and tempered by compromise; a budget that we can all get behind. They must not fail at that.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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