Obama’s budget is policy, not philosophy

(By Bradley C. Bower/Bloomberg)

For some time now, Democrats and Republicans alike have been yearning for a great philosophical clash between the two parties. No more of this five percent of 12 percent of the federal budget stuff. We wanted entitlements, the role of government, the obligations that the old have to the young, that the rich have to the poor, that the powerful have to the powerless.

Paul Ryan’s budget offer exactly that sort of reconstruction of the social compact. America is a very different place before his budget than it would be after his budget. But though Obama’s speech was closer to that sort of clash of visions than anything he’s offered before — he used the word “vision” 15 times, for instance — what he offered was not philosophy. It was policy. But you have to read it closely — and know where it came from — to see that.

This is difficult advice when it comes to deficit reduction, but don’t look at the number. This plan cuts $4 trillion, that plan cuts $2 trillion, that one cuts $10 trillion. Those numbers reflect little but the internal hopes and dreams of the plan. If I say that my plan means Medicare will never spend another penny and economic growth will shoot to 8 percent — and that’s only a shade less optimistic than the assumptions and models included in the Ryan budget (pdf) — I can save an almost unlimited amount of money. My number can be anything I want it to be. The problem is I actually can’t save that much money because my math is based on fantasy. So my number is meaningless.

President Obama says his plan cuts $4 trillion over 12 years. Rep. Paul Ryan says his plan cuts $4 trillion over 10 years. If you look at the numbers, the two plans appear quite similar. But if you look at how they’d get to the number, they couldn’t be more different. And it’s how you get to the number that matters, because that’s what decides whether you’ll get to the number. It’s also, incidentally, what decides the shape of our government going forward.

Ryan’s number is the product of holding the growth of Medicare and Medicaid to the rate of inflation, which is far lower than has ever been shown to be possible. How he gets there is, on Medicaid, he tells the states to figure it out, and on Medicare, he tells seniors to figure it out. Both strategies have been tried: Various states have gotten waivers to radically remake their Medicaid program, and the consumer-driven model that Ryan is proposing for Medicare has been attempted in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program and Medicare Advantage. None of these programs have worked, which is why we’re in our current predicament.

Obama’s number is the product of holding Medicare growth to GDP+0.5 percent — which is, in practice, a few percentage points beyond inflation, and a few percentage points behind the health-care system’s normal rate of growth. He mostly gets there through the cost controls passed as part of the Affordable Care Act, which hope to hold Medicare to GDP+1 percent. He then proposes to shave a further half-percentage point off the growth rate by introducing value-based insurance — where we pay more for treatments that are proven to work than for treatments that are not proven to work — into Medicare and giving generic drugs quicker entry into the marketplace. These programs have worked at smaller scales and in more limited pilots. We don’t know if they’ll work across the entire Medicare system, but we have reason to think they will.

Then there are taxes. Ryan’s plan pledges to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, at a cost of at least $4 trillion over 10 years, and more after that. He’d then clean out the tax code, but he’d pump the money he made from closing expenditures back into tax cuts. Obama proposes to return to the Clinton-era tax rates on income over $250,000 and then raise a further trillion through closing tax expenditures. Altogether, that’s about $2 trillion less than letting all the Bush tax cuts expire, but at least $2 trillion more than Ryan’s plan. Notably, Obama hasn’t said which expenditures he’d close to get to $1 trillion. The difference between the two tax plans — particularly when added to Obama’s decision to cut $400 billion from security-related spending, while Ryan largely exempts that category — explains why Obama doesn’t have to make such deep cuts in programs for seniors and low-income Americans.

So are we finally getting the grand philosophical debate we wanted? Not quite. Obama spoke extensively of vision — the GOP’s, which “claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires ... {while} asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill,” and his, “where we live within our means while still investing in our future; where everyone makes sacrifices but no one bears all the burden; where we provide a basic measure of security for our citizens and rising opportunity for our children,” but he’s overselling it.

Obama’s budget is not philosophy. It is very similar to the Simpson-Bowles report, which attracted the votes of Republicans as far to the right as Tom Coburn. Few Democrats would say their vision of balancing the budget is one in which there was only one dollar of new taxes for every three dollars of spending cuts, but that’s what Obama’s proposal envisions. Obama’s budget, somewhat curiously, is what you’d expect at the end of a negotiation process, not the beginning. In fact, as it’s modeled off of Simpson-Bowles, it is the product of a negotiation process, as opposed to an opening bid. It is, in other words, policy. You could argue that this is a philosophy, and that philosophy is pragmatism, but I think that’s getting too cute. This is the sort of policy that night pass and might work.

Ryan’s budget is purer, but it is also more fantastical. It posits the government it wishes were possible, and the policies it wishes would work. It is an opening bid so ideological that it leaves little room for a process of negotiation. Every dollar it purports to raise comes from cutting spending. Not one comes from taxes. It privatizes Medicare and unwinds the federal government’s role in Medicaid. For all the philosophy in his budget — and his budget does have a very different philosophy about the proper role of government than we see in federal pllicy today — there’s neither policy that could pass nor policy that could work. And, curiously for a conservative who distrusts both government and congress, it has no answer to the question of “what if this fails?”

The policy that clarifies this difference is the “trigger.” Obama’s budget, aware that it might not pass and, if it does pass, it might not work, proposes to make automatic cuts to discretionary spending and tax expenditures if the promised savings don’t materialize. If Ryan’s budget falls shorts, there’s no comparable failsafe. That is to say, Obama’s budget has two plausible ways to get to its number, while Ryan’s budget has none. You don’t need a PhD in philosophy to understand why that’s a problem.

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