Michael Kinsley: You can’t cut that

A block from the Lincoln Memorial and right across the street from the State Department, a gorgeous new building is just being completed. Designed by the famous Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, it is the new headquarters of the United States Institute of Peace, established by Congress with the support of President Reagan in 1984. The institute was a sop to people who felt that Reagan was a dangerous warmonger, and who used to say things like, “We spend hundreds of billions every year on war, and yet we spend nothing on peace.” On that logic, the institute was founded and by 2011 had 325 employees and an annual budget of $44 million. The federal budget passed by the Republican House last month adjusts that down to zero.

According to its website, the institute’s mission is “to increase the nation’s capacity to manage international conflict without violence.” The institute consists of three “strategic centers” that include “four ‘cross-cutting’ components,” all aimed at “playing a significant and successful role in preventing armed conflicts; mediating and resolving them when they occur; and promoting post-conflict stabilization and democratic transformation.” Among the wide sweep of issues the institute tackles are “gender and peacebuilding,” “health and peacebuilding” and “media, conflict and peacebuilding.”

The Institute’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding trains practitioners of conflict management and also runs a national peace essay contest for high school students. The Jennings Randolph Senior Fellowship program pays for eight to 12 “outstanding scholars, policymakers, journalists and other professionals” each year to “reflect on international peace and security challenges.” And have I mentioned the Global Peacebuilding Center, another part of the Institute of Peace, which …well, which is working for peace too, I’m sure?

It certainly sounds like bull, doesn’t it? An organization that was created in order to exist, and then went looking for a mission? On the New York Times op-ed page recently, Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, argued passionately that it has found one. People from the Institute for Peace, he says, have been vital in preventing or resolving conflicts around the world and have shown great courage in doing so.


Maybe that’s the case. But Zinni’s article is a good example of a genre of literature we’ll be seeing a lot of as the president and Congress grapple with the federal deficit (and each other): the special pleading. Whether it takes the form of an op-ed piece, a speech, a press release or an open letter to the president, there are certain familiar elements. Among them:

1. Expression of general support for deficit reduction. Reference to easy answers (there are none). Reference to burden (all must share).

2. Reference to babies and bathwater. Former should not be discarded with latter.

3. This program/agency/tax break is different. A bargain for the taxpayers. Pays for itself many times over. To eliminate or cut would be bad for children/our troops.


4. Cost is small (a) as percentage of total budget; (b) compared with budget of Pentagon; (c) compared with projected cost of healthcare.

5. Optional comparisons to cost of just one jet fighter or 3.7 minutes of war on terror.

6. Names of famous people who support this program or tax cut, especially Colin Powell. Other good names: Madeleine Albright, Natalie Portman, George H.W. Bush (not W), Warren Buffett.

7. This is not about fair, responsible, across-the-board budget cutting. This is about the other side irresponsibly pursuing its ideological agenda, penalizing programs it doesn’t like.


This last complaint, usually heard from Democrats about the budget that has passed the Republican-controlled House, is an odd one. If you’re looking for places to save money, why wouldn’t you concentrate on programs you don’t approve of? Equal across-the-board cuts, of good programs and bad programs alike, are the opposite of responsible budgeting.

Comparisons with Pentagon spending are especially inappropriate, because defense spending is different. The payoffs from most types of government spending are incremental. You can decide how much you want the government to spend on, say, subsidizing symphony orchestras. There is no exact right answer: The more you spend, the more you get. More symphony orchestras are a good thing, but there are other good things you want the government to do, or of course you might want the government to stay out of it and lower your taxes instead.

But in the case of defense spending, notions like how much we can afford, or what it would be nice to have, are inappropriate. The value is not gradual or incremental. It is absolutely essential to spend whatever is necessary to keep our nation safe, and a total waste to spend a nickel more. We debate, of course, the exact location of the point at which defense spending shifts from essential to worthless, and that depends on your views about America’s purpose in the world. But comparing the cost of a jet fighter with the cost of, say, the National Endowment for the Arts is silly. Either we need the jet fighter or we don’t. How much we should spend subsidizing the arts is a more subtle question.

It’s also true but unpersuasive that the whole budget debate is focusing on the smallest part of federal spending — discretionary spending — and ignoring the big bucks, which are in inexorably rising healthcare costs. Given all past experience, a perfectly adequate reaction to the Obama administration’s claims that healthcare reform will save the government money is, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But that is no reason not to show more discipline on smaller matters. Every little bit helps.


Even if some government program is proved effective, that is not a good enough reason to protect it. Is it more effective than other uses of the money, including leaving it in taxpayers’ pockets? We are still a rich country and can afford to finance a high school essay contest on peace, or any other luxury — if we’re willing to pay for it.

Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, writes a column for Politico. A version of this column also appears on that website.