On the shopping list: Butter, and guns

12/31/2013 8:19 AM

12/31/2013 8:19 AM

In October, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack came to Kansas City and urged Congress to pass a new farm bill. Without a new bill, Vilsack said, the price of a gallon of milk or ice cream would double on New Year’s Day.

He didn’t want to raise dairy prices, he insisted. But failure to pass a new bill would require him to rely on an older version, forcing government intervention in dairy markets and a vastly higher price for a milkshake.

Well, tomorrow is Jan. 1, and Congress failed to pass a new farm bill. But you needn’t rush out today and scoop up all the Gouda.

As you likely suspected, Vilsack’s threat was, shall we say, flexible.

It turns out the folks in Washington can twist a few knobs and give Congress another month or so before the dairy price hikes kick in.

And this time they really mean it. They swear.

If this were an isolated example of political hyperbole, we might shrug it off. Instead, it’s another example of a cry-wolf mentality infecting Democrats and Republicans alike.

About this time last year, you’ll recall, Washington feared the sequester — spending cuts that would kick in without a congressional budget compromise. Opponents said the sequester would decimate domestic programs and cripple the military.

The sequester took effect, and, to be fair, there was some pain: federal workers were furloughed, Head Start took a hit, private businesses lost government contracts.

By and large, though, the republic survived, despite Democratic predictions of doom.

Republicans play the game, too. In late December, former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri urged taxpayers to buy more submarines and develop underwater drones in response to a Chinese military buildup.

“The Chinese are becoming, if they are not already,” he wrote, “a peer military competitor of the United States.”

The U.S. has 11 active aircraft carriers. The Chinese have one. We spend four times as much on national defense as China, with one-fourth the population.

Yes, the Chinese pose some threat. And yes, the sequester cuts hurt, and the lack of a farm bill is a problem.

But a country $17 trillion in debt needs realistic discussion, not more doomsday rhetoric about missile gaps — and, for that matter, doubled dairy prices.

There’s some evidence the nation is emerging from a five-year Great Recession: the deficit, while still huge, is shrinking. Let’s hope 2014 brings a sober discussion of what comes next, not a mindless rush to buy more guns

and butter.

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