The Nightmare of Sequestration Hits Home

By James Fallows

The always-popular Air Power Over Hampton Roads air show, featuring the USAF Thunderbirds, has just been called off, as the Pentagon hunkers down in preparation for "the sequester."

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More from local ABC affiliate WVEC, plus AVweb. The WVEC story contains this detail:

City of Hampton spokeswoman Robin McCormick called the decision a disappointment.

"It's an extremely popular event for thousands of families. However, we understand the Air Force's fiscal realities. With sequestration looming and uncertain budgets, of course they have to focus on military readiness over an air show," she told WVEC.com.

"Frankly, if sequestration happens, the economic impact of other cuts could hit Hampton much harder."

Of course I'm mainly being flip here. (a) If defense spending has to shrink, even loyal fans of airshows, like me, would argue that this is a reasonable place to start*; and (b) the cutback is in accord with what Charles Peters of The Washington Monthly used to call the "fireman first" principle. That is, if bureaucrats are told to take $x million out of their budget, they'll fight back by making cuts where an $x million loss will be most instantly obvious to the public. Like closing the local firehouse -- or canceling an air show. Also (c) as the City of Hampton representative put it, there will be much more consequential effects.

The big point, of course, is that is what it is like for a country to budget and govern from "one manufactured crisis to the next," as we heard about a few days ago. In the weeks to come we are sure to see a combination of "fireman-first"-type cuts -- lower staffing and much longer lines for the TSA, closing of popular parks or sites -- and real, not-just-for-show reminders to the public of the consequences of the role of public services and institutions in daily life.

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Fri Feb 15 10:24:35 PST 2013

Langley cancels air show as Congress battles over the budget

The Air Power Over Hampton Roads open house and show was scheduled for May 3-5 in Hampton. view full article

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* I will leave for another time the argument that "operational readiness" funding in the military -- money necessary to keep pilots flying and troops proficient with their weapons and machinery -- is the last, rather than the first, place you'd want to cut the DOD budget. If you're mainly concerned about giving pilots real-world flying hours, there are smarter and cheaper ways to do it than these big air shows -- much as I love being there to watch them.

UPDATE from a reader in North Carolina: 
The air show here in NC at Seymour Johnson airbase has also been cancelled.  My husband works at Bragg as a DA Civilian and if they are furloughed they will either have to take one day off a week or maybe have to take a whole month off without pay.  Since Bragg is home of Special Forces, Civil Affairs, and the 82d Airborne, you can imagine that these furloughs have an impact on readiness and training.  There is no doubt that defense cuts need to be made, but one place to start is the waste and abuse that goes on in the defense contracting racket.
Update^update from another reader with experience in the military-budgeting thickets:

The sequester, as structured, requires the DoD (and other Departments/Agencies) to reduce their spending across all of their various spending categories (except for the specified exclusions such as military pay); organizations have very little choice as to where they take the cuts, and no ability to flow money from one category to another to prioritize specific programs, Program Elements, etc.  

To the extent a "Fireman First" approach appears to be used it's in reality an artifact of the sequester implementation rules and not a decision on the part of any DoD organization. Not saying they wouldn't do the same if they did have the choice; my point is that they don't. And with base operating support cut substantially, avoiding the costs associated with an airshow--which are large--also must be considered.

Update 3 And while I'm at it, this perspective:

Of course, to those who believe in climate change and the necessity of a vast reduction in spending on circuses to amuse the public, this is exactly the correct first step.  Such airshows waste petroleum based fuels for the completely frivolous amusement of those mostly unwilling, as well as unable to comprehend any of the core problems the nation and earth are facing now.

The sad part is that the economic benefits to a community in which this sort of circus occurs often take the forms of junk food, overpriced and irresponsibly constructed hostelries, jingoistic patriotism displays and a most unpleasant and bullying religiosity.

It is, to me, most positive that these events are first in line for the chopping block.  We should, at this point in time, have matured beyond the point of being entertained by this sort of emotional need.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/02/the-nightmare-of-sequestration-hits-home/273260/