Fixing the Federal Budget – UPDATED

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

New York Times graphic, Nov. 14, 2010

I’m neither hopeful nor afraid when I think of the federal budget deficit.  I’m just fascinated.

Call me weird (you won’t be the first) but I feel like I’m watching an absorbing comedy/drama of historical proportions. For me, it began with the $127 billion budget surplus Bill Clinton left to his successor (whose name I’d rather choke than say), who managed in eight years to turn it into a $455 billion deficit, spending a trillion dollars on wars we didn’t need to fight, and giving tax cuts that never resulted in a single new job, despite his promises the economy would flourish as a result.

The comedy is the sheer hubris of the Republican/TEA Party majority in the House of Representatives who are so sure they’re going to cut the budget and eliminate the deficit within a few years. On election night I saw Chris Matthews on MSNBC interview some congresswoman who started by saying the Republicans would make “across-the-board” cuts.  When someone says a budget — any budget — should be cut equally in every category, you can be sure they don’t know what they’re talking about. Matthews asked her, several times, for specifics.  She had none.  Finally, he asked if she intended to cut the military budget.  Oh, no, she said, only the discretionary spending part of the budget.

The discretionary part of the budget is about 15% of the total.  If you cut every cent of discretionary spending — which is impossible — it would barely make a dent in the deficit.  So I knew at once that these people who think they are so smart and powerful are nothing but pompous clowns.

The tragic part of this ridiculousness is that while they’re flexing their muscles, instead of their brains, they’re likely to do some real damage to real human beings by, for example, allowing unemployment checks stop coming to two million unemployed Americans and their families. And while they won’t be able to repeal the Obama health care law, the RepubliTEA Party can do serious damage to hospitals and the people who need them while they try.

Yes, there must be cuts and, yes, there will be. And the November 14 New York Times has given us an exercise to show the kinds of choices that will be involved.

Imagine that Democrats and Republicans somehow came together and agreed on a grand bargain to cut the deficit.

They decided to cut the pay of federal workers over the next several years, close military bases, reduce foreign aid, eliminate earmarks, expand the payroll tax and cut Social Security benefits for high earners, as the chairmen of a bipartisan commission recommended last week.

Democrats also accepted the plan from John Boehner, the presumptive House speaker, to make large cuts to social programs. Republicans accepted President Obama’s proposal to let the Bush tax cuts expire on income above $250,000.

If the two parties managed to do all of this, how much of the country’s long-term deficit would they eliminate?

About one-third of it.

Before you try the interactive budget-cutting puzzle, you’d do well to read the article that introduces it. It will put you in the mood, and give you the context in which to make your decisions.

Come on.  Try it. It will help you to understand the events that will unfold starting in January.

UPDATE: When you finish the NY Times deficit cutting exercise — which really makes you think about your values, which is a very good thing — you’re told whether you actually solved the problem, and how much your solution depends on spending cuts vs how much on raising taxes. Then there’s a link you can send by e-mail (or post here!) so that people can see what you thing.  If you post your results in the comments below you don’t have to give your real name.

I’ll show you mine (with my real name attached) if you’ll show me yours.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Reply