Six lessons from the Post’s awesome budget charts

April 1, 2013

Have you spent any time playing with the Post's awesome interactive comparison of the various budget plans? Go ahead. I'll wait.

A few takeaways:

Everyone wants to cut defense. During the election, Mitt Romney wanted to boost the defense budget by trillions of dollars. In fact, he wanted to go even further than that, endorsing the Heritage Foundation's recommendation to put a "floor" on defense spending of four percent of GDP. Today, Republican, Democrat, liberals and conservatives are budgeting for far, far less than that. And note that the House Republican Study Committee -- which is, in essence, the conservative wing of the House Republicans -- wants more defense cuts than the Republican Party as a whole.

That said, a quick methodological point: The "baseline" that the budgets get compared to includes not just the sequester but an assumption of continued war spending. So the cuts here, in essence, mean we'd be spending far less on defense than we are now, but more than we would be under the sequester.

House Republicans are not cutting Medicare and Social Security. Over the next decade, the new cuts to Social Security and Medicare in the Ryan budget are...$129 billion. That's not much -- though remember that it doesn't count the $700 billion in Medicare cuts that Ryan keeps from Obamacare. The new cuts to every program that isn't Medicare or Social Security? Almost $4.7 trillion.

The Ryan budget is mostly about cutting health care. At least $2.7 trillion of Ryan's new cuts -- and probably more when you count miscellaneous programs scattered throughout the budget -- come from health spending.

The sequester changed the baseline in a way that hurts the Democrats. You'll notice the Democrats barely get credit for any non-defense spending cuts. That's in large part because the baseline now includes the sequester cuts. So any replacement that includes tax increases and spending cuts looks, as compared to the baseline, like an increase in spending. But compared to the pre-sequester budget path, it's a spending cut. Or, to put it a bit differently, the sequester has made any balanced deal look like a spending increase.

House Progressive raise taxes. A lot. $5.7 trillion in tax increases is a lot of tax increases.

Budget numbers miss a lot. This graphic is, in my opinion, incredibly clear and well done. But it's also incredibly misleading. That's because the entire budget conversation is incredibly misleading.

When we talk budgets, we adopt a somewhat unusual set of metrics. How much deficit reduction is there? How much spending is cut? What happens to tax revenues? How about interest?

But behind those numbers are a host of consequences that we're totally ignoring. How many Americans are uninsured? How many are in poverty? What's happening to college tuition? What's happening to the state of our infrastructure? A budget can "win" on deficit reduction but lose, profoundly, on these other measures -- but since these other measures are left out of the conversation, the debate is horribly incomplete.

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Sarah Kliff | April 1, 2013