The Washington Monument Strategy

Stephen Colbert used the air traffic delays arising out of the budget sequester as his jumping off point to skewer Rogoff and Reinhart (RR).  Watch the fun below. Obviously, the case for aggressive and immediate fiscal austerity is much tougher to make now.  You can also see Colbert interview UMass Armherst graduate student Thomas Herndon, one of the authors of the paper that debunked RR, here.

However, it seems odd to me (and, apparently, The Wall Street Journal) that a relatively modest budget cut would create a huge air traffic pile-up.  As the Journal reports, the sequester cut less than 4 percent from the FAA’s budget.  However, the White House has apparently decided to transpose this 4 percent cut — a cut that it has the legal discretion to avoid — into a 10 percent cut for air traffic controllers. Moreover, even “[t]hough controllers will be furloughed for one of every 10 working days, four of every 10 flights won’t arrive on time.  The FAA projects the delays will rob one out of every three travellers of up to four hours of their lives waiting at the major hubs.”

The Journal alleges that the White House “is actively creating even more delays, cancellations and missed connections in order to incite a public outcry on behalf of bigger government.”  The Washington Post seems generally to agree, if less forcefully:  “the airlines argue, plausibly, that the FAA could have carried out the furloughs with far less impact on air travelers, even if the sequestration law gave it no choice whether to impose them.”

Enforcing the sequester in this way sure smells like an example of the Washington Monument strategy, which “involves fighting against budget cuts by focusing, and if possible shifting cuts, to the most popular and visible services an agency provides — thus the Park Service would react to a budget cut by threatening to close the Washington Monument, figuring that disappointed tourists would flood their Member of Congress’s office complaining about it.”  The other (seldom discussed) advantage of this strategy is that it allows bureaucrats to assert that their department has no fat to cut — thus the difficult and unpopular action. In other words, the proffered necessary (if implicit)conclusion is that since there are only extremely important budgetary items to cut, no cuts were and are warranted and, indeed, an increased budgetary allocation is probably essential. 

The Washington Monument strategy works because, much as the public hates Congress but supports “their” individual Member of Congress, the public dislikes “government spending” and thinks “government waste” is a big deal but doesn’t want to kill individual programs. Yet again, it seems as though politics takes precedence over good policy, not to mention common sense.


4 thoughts on “The Washington Monument Strategy

  1. I think that we would agree that members of both parties have political intent and act out for their own or their party’s advantage. But I have noticed that the degree to which one side or the other sees malevolent intent is often strongly correlated with their own political leaning. Hence, Obama (or McConnell) as ‘the Great Satan’.

    By the way, the more Colbert, the better. The clips were hilarious.

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