Remember when everybody was talking about the budget deficit?
Today, it's $500 billion. And falling.
This, of course, is one of Barack Obama's legacies. He raised taxes on the rich and cut spending across the board. Even with strong growth in mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare this year, the federal government is going to spend about the same amount of money it spent in 2012 -- and less than it spent in 2011. Adjusted for inflation, the government has shrunk.
But it has come at a cost.
Case in point: We have run out of money to fight wildfires.
A couple decades ago, wildfires in the western United States typically consumed 2 to 4 million acres in a year. Nowadays, they consume 6 to 8 million acres. As a result, the cost of wildfire suppression has more than tripled in that amount of time. And yet, Congress continues to allocate funding based on what it cost a decade ago, instead of what it costs today.
So it's not surprising that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ran out of money to fight wildfires this year, forcing him to divert money away from programs that prevent wildfires -- magnifying the problem in years to come.
Traveling to the other side of the country, a Pennsylvania official testified in court earlier this week that he and his fellow regulators didn't investigate chemical leaks that were allegedly poisoning citizens' drinking water near natural gas wells.
But this shouldn't surprise us either. After all, the Associated Press recently discovered that 40 percent of new oil and gas wells haven't been inspected in this country. The report described the regulators as "so overwhelmed by a boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that [they have] been unable to keep up with inspections of some of the highest priority wells."
It's not like those investigations really matter, right? The Pennsylvania trial revealed that landowners were drinking water with "explosive levels of methane." Meanwhile, a new paper published this week by researchers at Stanford and Duke showed that even tiny amounts of fracking wastewater can contaminate drinking water with toxic compounds.
So I guess it's no big deal that regulators are so underfunded that they're neglecting almost half the country's drilling wells.
You'd think we would've learned this lesson last year when the IRS scandal revealed that auditors were singling out political groups -- conservative and liberal, by the way -- for investigation without any apparent probable cause.
For years, the IRS has been underfunded. The National Taxpayer Advocate said so. A Boston Globe investigation said so. The Government Accountability Office said so. And they all predicted that underfunding would result in less enforcement and more cutting corners. In fact, they said taxpayers would lose money because every dollar in budget cuts led to seven dollars in lost tax revenue that they would've collected if they'd had the manpower to do so.
Then the scandal hit, revealing that IRS officials were so "overworked" that they felt they had no choice but to take shortcuts through the "flood of applications" on their desks.
These are only a few examples of the price we have paid for a smaller deficit.
Barack Obama deserves credit for delivering on his promise to shrink the deficit -- a promise that Mitt Romney and his tax cuts would surely have violated -- but Americans have to ask themselves whether they really want a smaller government. Do we really want millions of acres destroyed by fire, and drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals, and government officials harassing the innocent? I know I don't.
And I also know there's a better way. It begins with the understanding that, for all its faults and inefficiencies, our government does many good, essential things in our society. And yes, those things come at a price. But that is a price worth paying.
This op-ed was published in today's South Florida Sun-Sentinel.