This One Weird Trick for Balancing the US Government’s Budget


Every year like clockwork, our masters in Washington cluck like hens over government spending. They lay new plans to reduce the annual budget deficit (currently hovering at around half a trillion dollars per year). They hatch new schemes to pay down their accrued debt (more than $18 trillion and increasing at a rate of more than $2 billion per day).

This year’s proposal from House Republicans would theoretically balance the budget … ten years from now. It would also theoretically reduce the debt from 74% of GDP to 18% … over the course of 25 years.

Many “moderate” Republicans and most Democrats criticize the plan as unworkable and, to use the expression favored by fraidycat clingers to the status quo, “unserious.” Why? Because they think ten years is unrealistically fast.

I agree. The plan is unworkable and “unserious.” But for the opposite reason. Ten years is far too long. Any plan relying on future politicians to stick to plans drawn up by today’s politicians is doomed to failure.

US Representatives are elected every two years, US Senators every six. While re-election rates are scandalously high, the faces do change over time. And the minds of long-term incumbents change as well. When the credit card doesn’t come with a limit, every crisis, real or manufactured, becomes an excuse to give up on fiscal discipline and treat themselves to a spending spree.

Fortunately, there’s a way out of this mess. It’s this one weird trick I learned in a high school math class. Wanna hear it? Here it is:

Congress should stop spending more money than it takes in.

Not ten years from now. Not five years from now. Not next year. NOW.

Yes, it really is that simple.

Will massive spending cuts sting? Yes, they will. Every household in America knows what it’s like to have to cut spending. We do it when we have to because we have to. Life isn’t fair.

How bad would it smart? Well, if Congress cut 2015 spending to the balance line, the federal government would still spend about half again as much this year as it spent in 2005. I’m sure you recall, as do I, that in 2005 America’s starving masses died in the ditches alongside its roads. Of course I’m just making that up. Remember? We couldn’t afford roads!

Where to cut? Well, if Congress reduced the budgeted cost of “defense” by 90%, the budget would balance and the US would still be the world’s first or second largest military spender (depending on which direction China’s military spending takes). But if the politicians want to split the cuts between various budget lines, fine.

Is it politically doable? Yes. The Republicans control Congress. If they don’t appropriate money for the executive branch to spend, the executive branch can’t spend that money. If the budget isn’t balanced, it’s because Republicans don’t want to balance it.

It’s time and past time for America’s politicians to start living within their ample means. Balance the budget. Now.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


Fake Privatization: Shut Down the Red-Light Racket

Red light camera system at the Springfield, Oh...
Red light camera system at the Springfield, Ohio intersection of Limestone and Leffels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Red-light cameras sound like easy money to revenue-hungry city governments. Instead of paying police officers to enforce traffic laws and ticket offenders, they outsource the job to companies like American Traffic Solutions and Redflex. Those firms install the cameras, monitor their output, and sometimes even handle the mailing of traffic tickets to motorists who run red lights, collecting a share of the fines from their government clients in return for their services.

But Americans aren’t very comfortable with receiving traffic tickets from private sector corporations on the basis of remote video monitoring.

Among other problems, they note that it’s generally impossible to establish who was driving a car when it ran a red light without actually pulling the driver over at the scene. They also question the legality of allowing private sector actors, often not even located in the same states as the alleged offenders, to issue traffic citations. And of course there’s the “creepy” factor: Most Americans read George Orwell’s 1984 in high school. We don’t like the idea of being watched everywhere we go.

The cities, and the companies, claim that the cameras are all about safety rather than revenue. They cite statistics claiming reduced fatality numbers at intersections equipped with the cameras. But a 2014 report from Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Governmental Accountability says that traffic accidents increase by 12% — and that rear-end collisions of the type occasioned by sudden brake application to avoid running lights increase by a whopping 35% — at such intersections.

Citizen protests — and legislative and judicial responses to those protests — are beginning to cut into the red-light camera racket. On March 16, two Broward County, Florida judges threw out 24,000 red-light camera tickets, representing $6.3 million in prospective revenue. The reason? While local police departments formally issued the tickets, they did so on the assurances of American Traffic Solutions employees in Arizona, not on their own observation of offenses or even on the basis of viewing the videos themselves.

Which brings up a fourth problem. The cities with red-light cameras, and the companies which operate them, note that these systems free up police officers for other duties. They sell that as a feature. I consider it a bug.

Cops who aren’t kept busy enforcing traffic safety laws are freed up to instead enforce laws against victimless “crimes” like gambling, prostitution and drug possession. When we consider the results — a burgeoning US prison population and growing body count of Americans gunned down by police officers on our streets — it may be that red-light cameras cost more than they bring in.

Real privatization is about getting government out of various areas of our lives, not leaving it in charge of those areas while allowing it to shunt the actual work off to unaccountable, rent-seeking “private” actors. If city governments want to privatize their streets, they should put those streets up for auction. Otherwise, they should shoulder the costs and the responsibilities of providing public roadways themselves.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


No, Mr. Muravchik, War is Not the “Best Option”

Early weapons models, such as the "Fat Ma...
Replica of the early “Fat Man” atomic bomb. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


“What if force is the only way to block Iran from gaining nuclear weapons?” asks Joshua Muravchik in the Washington Post (“War with Iran is probably our best option,” March 13). It’s a serious question that deserves some critical parsing before following Muravchik to his conclusion that “[t]hat, in fact, is probably the reality.”

What, precisely, does Muravchik mean by “reality?” He seems to go with the definition offered by an unnamed George W. Bush aide to writer Ron Suskind in 2004: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

In non-Muravchik reality, the US and Israeli intelligence communities say Iran doesn’t seem to have an active nuclear weapons program. The International Atomic Energy Agency, while publicly less sure, has reported no evidence of such a program. Why should we believe Muravchik instead of them?

In non-Muravchik reality, Iranian “Supreme Leader”  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says that pursuit or possession of nuclear weapons is a sin against Islam which his regime will never commit. Anti-Iran hawks like Muravchik insist we must take Khameini at his word when he threatens to destroy Israel or plant the flag of his Islamic Republic atop the White House. Why shouldn’t we take him at his word on this as well?

In non-Muravchik reality, Iran has cheerfully gone along with, even offered, various proposals to furnish its civilian reactors with enriched (but not weapons grade) material while forgoing enrichment itself — a concession it’s not obligated to make under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Finally, in non-Muravchik reality, the US has spent the entirety of the 21st century at Muravchik-approved war or proxy war in the Middle East and central Asia, leaving things worse rather than better in each and every instance.

Afghanistan. Iraq. Libya. Yemen. Syria. Where the US goes to war, it inevitably leaves radical Islam, rather than stable democracy, empowered and emboldened behind it. If we’re searching for irresponsible belligerence in the region, our gaze must necessarily come to rest on the stars and stripes.

And if Iran does develop nuclear weapons … well, so what? That genie’s been out of the bottle for 70 years and isn’t going back in. Yes, Iranian nukes would change the regional dynamic. But that dynamic sucks. Perhaps it’s time for an Iranian counterweight to Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly.

The “best option” — for America, for Iran and for the world — is for the United States to simmer down, take war off the table, and learn to mind its own business.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.