Check this out. I am an immense nerd, so to me this New York Times “budget puzzle” is one of the coolest gadgets I’ve come across on the Internet in a long time.
The puzzle gives you a graphical representation of the U.S. budget expected shortfall in both 2015 and 2030. It’s expected to be almost $1.5 trillion in the latter period! A one and a half trillion dollar deficit (we’re rounding up because it’s always smart to be pessimistic about government; besides, what’s a few hundred billion between friends?)
The gadget also allows you to try to close both gaps through various budget cuts and tax raises.
Here’s a challenge for you: eliminate both budget gaps without raising taxes (because that’s cheating.) Give it a shot.
A genuine libertarian, interested in shrinking government at all levels, should be able to do it without that much difficulty. It still requires a lot of clicking. You have to:
- Gut the federal government, (check all boxes under domestic and foreign aid.)
- Increase the eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security to 70 (which I’m pretty sure is beyond where any one taken seriously in the media wants to put it.)
- Enact the Bowles/Simpson plan that would lower tax rates but eliminate tax loopholes.
These and a few other cuts will close the 2030 budget gap, but not the 2015 one. Not bad, you say? I guess. But it proves the point that eliminating both gaps without raising taxes requires at least some defense cuts. Also, on a moral level, I’m not sure why defense cuts shouldn’t be prioritized over cuts to programs that may actually keep people from starving. Just saying.
The Tea Party movement, famously, rejects tax increases. Senator Jim DeMint, a Tea Party favourite, recently gave an interview in which he pledged to stand against raising the debt ceiling unless it is combined with “some path to balancing the budget.” When pressed, DeMint could not or would not name anything specific he would like to cut, except for earmarks (you can see what little good that would do in the New York Times model.)
He also explicitly rejected cuts to Medicare and Social Security. See for yourself in the video below.
If you’ve played around with the New York Times‘ gadget at all, you’ll notice that it is impossible to not raise taxes and still close both budget gaps without cutting Social Security, Medicare, and/or defense. Impossible. Mess around with the gadget all you want, and both gaps will stubbornly remain, unless you raise taxes, or cut more than one of these three programs, all of which, presumably, Sen. DeMint won’t even touch.
Here’s the result if you check off every box in the first section, skip the defense section, check off a few of the boxes in the Medicare and Social Security sections (but not those that would reduce payments to seniors) and then ignore the tax raising section.
Sen. DeMint, along with the Tea Party Movement, is screwed. If the Americans are going to balance the budget, they have to (a) raise taxes, (b) get their senior citizens off welfare, or (c) cut defense. Realistically, outside of libertarian land, they’ll probably have to do all three, because it’s unlikely cuts alone will be politically feasible.
Actually, it’s unlikely any of this will be politically feasible. And as my colleague Mike Brock has pointed out to me, the assumptions underlying the New York Times model are extremely optimistic. As the dollar loses value, the cost of financing the debt will rise, making it even harder to close budget gaps in the years ahead.
This all comes back to some of the reasons I repudiate the Tea Party movement. The people in the movement were silent, or even cheered, as George W. Bush spent money like a drunken sailor. Now that a black guy is in charge, they’re angry about spending, and I’m sure their belated timing is just a coincidence.
Except that when you ask them or their favourite politicians to be specific about what they would cut, defense, Medicare, and Social Security are immediately off the table, even though balancing the budget without making some cuts in these areas looks impossible.
Yet they claim to be worried about out-of-control government spending. Yeah, that’s what they say. Do you believe that’s what they’re really worried about? I don’t.