Ben Stein tells CNN’s In The Arena that the Tea Party is “off base” for its demands of immediate, deep cuts in the federal budget, and that such cuts would be “dangerous” if implemented. Stein doesn’t do much to back up that assertion, however, although it’s not entirely his fault. When he brings up the notion of imposing a “balance over the cycle” requirement rather than an explicit balanced-budget amendment, CNN host Tom Foreman asks Stein to explain:

Let’s tackle the “balance over the cycle” argument first. It sounds like a great plan, except for a couple of fundamental problems. The first is that we have yet to get a budget in balance in good times or bad in decades. Even the Clinton-Gingrich “surplus” was a fantasy that only existed as long as we pretended not to notice the federal government raiding Social Security for cash. A requirement to balance the budget with exceptions for the “cycle” would allow Congress to argue that each year is a special case that requires deficit spending in order to keep Grandma from getting pushed off a cliff.

If the economic cycle turns downward, why can’t a Congress with a statutory limit of, say, 20% of GDP simply make choices on where to spend the money? If we need more cash for unemployment benefits, then spend less on subsidies, entitlements, and other programs (including the military). That’s exactly what budgeting entails. Any surpluses in good years should go to reducing the national debt. Budgets in bad years shouldn’t increase the national debt. The only exception should be for war.

Stein’s original argument against sharp cuts and in favor of gradual reductions ignores one big problem — we don’t have the money we’re spending now.  We are literally spending pretend cash, which we say we’ll repay later but on our current trajectory have no possible means to do so.  In order to right the fiscal ship, we need to start by making actual cuts, not just reductions in the baseline increases already built into the budget assumptions, which is what both the Boehner and Reid plans do.  Those cuts don’t have to start off as deep cuts — Ryan’s plan takes that approach, while Coburn’s Back in Black framework goes farther in actual agency and program eliminations — but they have to start off as real cuts.

In reality, we don’t have the votes for that approach now, so it’s basically a moot point in this acute crisis.  But it should be a big issue in the 2012 election, because we’re not going to solve the problem of escalating American debt merely by slowing it down a tad.