Suppose I bought an iPhone yesterday for $500.

Suppose I argue that I will save $2000 this week, because I intend to refraining from buying an additional iPhone today, nor will I buy one this Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday.

Suppose I plan to buy a new flat screen TV tomorrow for $1500.

Can I claim I that have paid for my TV by cutting other spending, and that in addition I will be saving $500 this week?

This is what the Administration has done with war costs in their budget.

There is no debate about how much I will spend this week: $500 for the iPhone, plus $1500 for the TV, equals $2000 of total spending.

The question is instead whether I have increased or decreased my spending compared to what it otherwise would have been.

In this example, I argued that I will cut my total projected spending by $500, and I am also paying for the TV by cutting spending.

You argue that it is absurd to assume that I would buy an iPhone each day this week. The right baseline, you argue, is to treat the iPhone purchase as a one-time expenditure, and to use a spending baseline of zero for the remainder of this week. Thus the $1500 TV purchase is a spending increase, not a spending cut.

The argument about whether the President’s budget increases or cuts the deficit is therefore a debate about the baseline – what would happen otherwise?

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) did a good analysis of the war spending assumption in the President’s budget. He and his staff conclude that the President’s budget includes $1.5 trillion of phony savings (over 10 years) by inflating the war spending baseline the way I did with my mythical cancelled iPhone purchases. The President’s budget makes a similar $330 B assumption for Medicare payments to doctors.

Even more intriguing, the President’s budget (table S-5 in this document) argues that the $9 trillion of incremental baseline debt they argue they “inherited” should include $835 B of additional debt resulting from two laws President Obama signed: the stimulus law, and the omnibus appropriations law. Clearly that $835 B of additional debt was not inherited, and should be netted out against their claimed future deficit reduction.

Here is the math behind the Administration’s claim of fiscal responsibility, and CBO’s countervailing analysis. All figures are for the next ten years (2010-2019):

Administration CBO
Additional debt under the baseline $9.0 trillion $4.5 trillion
Additional debt under the President’s budget $7.0 trillion $9.3 trillion
Effect of the President’s budget on additional debt -$2.0 trillion of debt +$4.8 trillion of debt

Let us walk through this step by step.

  • The Administration has a radically different starting point than CBO. The President’s budget starts by assuming that $9.0 trillion of debt will be accumulated over the next ten years if the President’s budget is not enacted. The Congressional Budget Office assumes that $4.5 trillion of debt will be accumulated over the next ten years in the same scenario.
  • The Administration assumes that its policies will result in $7 trillion of additional debt added over the next decade. That is $2.3 trillion less than CBO assumes. We saw why yesterday – the President’s budget assumes that the economy will grow faster than CBO assumes. This faster economic growth assumption would result in faster revenue growth for the government, and therefore smaller (but still huge) budget deficits.
  • These two differences in assumptions result in two completely different views of the President’s budget. The President and his advisors argue they are being responsible by reducing the deficit by $2 trillion over the next decade, while someone relying on CBO’s numbers would say the President’s budget is horribly irresponsible and that it increases the debt by $4.8 trillion more than it would otherwise be.

This debate about whether the sign is a + or a – is politically significant. The -$2 trillion figure is the cornerstone of the Administration’s claim to fiscal responsibility. It allows them to justify big spending increases like the $600+ B new health entitlement.

At the same time, we should not let this important debate obscure that, even using the Administration’s more optimistic numbers, the President’s budget would mean that debt held by the public will increase by $7 trillion over the next decade, to a share of the economy not seen since the end of World War II.

Even if you believe the Administration’s deficit reduction claim (I do not), it is nowhere nearly enough deficit reduction. We need either to dramatically slow spending growth, or raise taxes, or some combination of the two. I support doing it all on the spending side while keeping taxes from increasing. Your view may differ. But we cannot accumulate $7 to $9.3 trillion more debt over the next decade and claim that we are being fiscally responsible.