One Nation On Welfare. Living Your Life On The Dole

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Adam Golfer for TIME

(7 of 7)

Independent analysts have suggested that if the U.S. actually followed the Ryan outline, by 2050 there would be no room in the budget for anything but defense, Social Security and health care. But even if Republicans take back Washington, cutting isn't a foregone conclusion; government spending exploded when they controlled the nation's capital in the Bush era. Every line item has lobbyists watching its back, and when you can get a reputation as a fiscally responsible budget cutter without doing the politically difficult budget cutting, why bother?

10 p.m.: Subsidized delivery

My family's asleep. I'm reading the mail, courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service, which is hemorrhaging cash in the e-mail era. The USPS is a classic example of a problem Washington can't fix. It clearly needs to cut costs and raise revenues. But the obvious cost reducers, like ending Saturday snail-mail delivery and closing rural post offices, and the obvious revenue enhancer, increasing stamp prices, are DOA on Capitol Hill.

Liberals are correct that we rely on government much more than we realize. Conservatives are correct that government tries to do too many things. Republicans have seized on the Obama campaign's Life of Julia online tool--showing how one woman might benefit from Head Start, tuition aid, Medicare and other federal programs during her life--to accuse Democrats of viewing Americans as cradle-to-grave wards of the state. Democrats have portrayed Republicans as antigovernment absolutists in thrall to the Tea Party, eager to deprive Americans of benefits we like and expect. There's some truth in those critiques too.

But those of us who think government has an important role to play in American life ought to support reining in the excesses that give government a bad name. When I asked analysts at the antigovernment Cato Institute and the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities what was the most wasteful government spending, they all gave the same answer: farm subsidies. A coalition of taxpayer activists and green groups recently proposed axing $700 billion worth of environmentally destructive federal largesse, from fossil-fuel subsidies to sprawl roads to pork-barrel water projects that drain wetlands. There is broad agreement among eggheads that tax perks for yachts, corporate jets and mortgage interest on mansions ought to go as well.

But it's hard to see the finger-in-the-wind political world following the wonk world's lead. The costliest spending programs affect the military and the elderly. And the costliest tax expenditures affect families like mine. We're the kind of moochers who vote.

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