When the political climate changes, things that were once routinely acceptable suddenly seem intolerable. On the subject of government spending, the climate has shifted decisively.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about why spending is so tough to control. The problem is that normally, the political incentives run the wrong way. Politicians who are big spenders tend to be rewarded with campaign money and support, while budget cutters tend to draw opposition and risk losing their jobs.
Meanwhile, voters don't pay much attention, so the big spenders aren't held accountable.
All of that has changed in recent months.
Scott Brown, a Republican, won a Senate seat in Democratic Massachusetts. Chris Christie, a Republican, won the governorship in Democratic New Jersey.
The GOPers are hardly home free. Last week, Utah Republicans threw out longtime Sen. Robert Bennett, who voted for the TARP bailout and supported a personal mandate in health care reform.
His bigger problem may have been that he was an "appropriator," a member of an appropriations committee. He was also a generator of earmarks.
Nor are voters idle on the Democratic side. Also last week, Democrat Rep. Alan Mollohan, a 17-year veteran in the House, was knocked off in a primary. He, too, was an appropriator and a big earmarker. In Pennsylvania, turncoat Republican Sen. Arlen Specter — yet another appropriator — is running scared in the Democratic primary.
This is a rare year, one in which the big spenders have targets on their backs. In such times, the cause of smaller government seems far from hopeless.
We need to remember that other countries have successfully pared their budgets — in a big way.
Spain recently froze civil service after a 5 percent pay cut. In the 1990s, Canada sliced spending over several years by 20 percent. Some of the cuts were in sacrosanct areas such as health care and even farm subsidies.
The economist Tyler Cowen writes that Ireland, Finland and Sweden also cut spending to a significant degree. But he adds, "the relatively strong Canadian trust in government may have paved the way for government spending cuts, a pattern that also appears in Scandinavia."
If trust in government is a prerequisite for spending cuts, we're in big trouble. But right now, I'd say it's the other way around: People don't trust government because it wastes money, and does it — at all levels — almost casually.
Take an example closer to home. Missouri had a mini-debate over whether the state should cut a $1 million allocation for an annual bicycle race — incredible when you think about it. People in Missouri couldn't figure out how to have a bike race without using tax money?
Budget experts point out that hacking away at spending on this scale is small beer. The real money is in entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. They're right: We won't get a handle on spending until something is done about the big programs.
But I submit that changing government spending habits will also entail a change in its culture. You can't change that while ignoring the outrageous, obvious waste that involves even relatively small amounts. Cutting spending will require less tolerance for waste, across the board.
An elected official I knew years ago once observed that a key motivation for politicians is that they want to be loved. No doubt that's a big part of it. But think about it: To the extent that's true, politics is a job in which officeholders get to use our money to buy our affections, which is downright weird.