This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
The streets are so much darker now, since money for streetlights is rarely available to municipal governments. The national parks began closing down years ago. Some are already being subdivided and sold to the highest bidder. Reports on bridges crumbling or even collapsing are commonplace. The air in city after city hangs brown and heavy (and rates of childhood asthma and other lung diseases have shot up), because funding that would allow the enforcement of clean air standards by the Environmental Protection Agency is a distant memory. Public education has been cut to the bone, making good schools a luxury and, according to the Department of Education, two of every five students won't graduate from high school.
It's 2023—and this is America 10 years after the first across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration went into effect. They went on for a decade, making no exception for effective programs vital to America's economic health that were already underfunded, like job training and infrastructure repairs. It wasn't supposed to be this way.
Traveling back in time to 2013—at the moment the sequester cuts began—no one knew what their impact would be, although nearly everyone across the political spectrum agreed that it would be bad. As it happened, the first signs of the unraveling which would, a decade later, leave the United States a third-world country, could be detected surprisingly quickly, only three months after the cuts began. In that brief time, a few government agencies, like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), after an uproar over flight delays, requested—and won—special relief. Naturally, the Department of Defense, with a mere $568 billion to burn in its 2013 budget, also joined this elite list. On the other hand, critical spending for education, environmental protection, and scientific research was not spared, and in many communities the effect was felt remarkably soon.
Robust public investment had been a key to US prosperity in the previous century. It was then considered a basic part of the social contract as well as of Economics 101. As just about everyone knew in those days, citizens paid taxes to fund worthy initiatives that the private sector wouldn't adequately or efficiently supply. Roadways and scientific research were examples. In the post-World War II years, the country invested great sums of money in its interstate highways and what were widely considered the best education systems in the world, while research in well-funded government labs led to inventions like the Internet. The resulting world-class infrastructure, educated workforce, and technological revolution fed a robust private sector.
In the early years of the twenty-first century, however, a set of manufactured arguments for "austerity," which had been gaining traction for decades, captured the national imagination. In 2011-2012, a Congress that seemed capable of doing little else passed trillions of dollars of what was then called "deficit reduction." Sequestration was a strange and special case of this particular disease. These across-the-board cuts, instituted in August 2011 and set to kick in on January 2, 2013, were meant to be a storm cloud hanging over Congress. Sequestration was never intended to take effect, but only to force lawmakers to listen to reason—to craft a less terrible plan to reduce deficits by a wholly arbitrary $1.2 trillion over 10 years. As is now common knowledge, they didn't come to their senses and sequestration did go into effect. Then, although Congress could have cancelled the cuts at any moment, the country never turned back.
It wasn't that cutting federal spending at those levels would necessarily have been devastating in 2013, though in an already weakened economy any cutbacks would have hurt. Rather, sequestration proved particularly corrosive from the start because all types of public spending—from grants for renewable energy research and disadvantaged public schools to HIV testing—were to be gutted equally, as if all of it were just fat to be trimmed. Even monitoring systems for possible natural disasters like river flooding or an imminent volcanic eruption began to be shut down. Over time the cuts would be vast: $85 billion in the first year and $110 billion in each year after that, for more than $1 trillion in cuts over a decade on top of other reductions already in place.
Once lawmakers wrote sequestration into law they had more than a year to wise up. Yet they did nothing to draft an alternate plan and didn't even start pointing out the havoc-to-come until just weeks before the deadline. Then they gave themselves a couple more months—until March 1, 2013—to work out a deal, which they didn't. All this is, of course, ancient history, but even a decade later, the record of folly is worth reviewing.
If you remember, they tweeted while Rome burned. Speaker of the House John Boehner, for instance, sent out dozens of tweets to say Democrats were responsible: "The president proposed sequester, had 18 mo. to prioritize cuts, and did nothing," he typically wrote, while he no less typically did nothing. For his part, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweeted back: "It's not too late to avert the damaging #sequester cuts, for which an overwhelming majority of Republicans voted." And that became the pattern for a decade of American political gridlock, still not broken today.