Posts Tagged ‘Baseline Budgeting’

Two days ago, I dug into the C-Span archives to share a 15-year old clip of me explaining the theoretical virtues of a national sales tax.

Let’s now go back more than 30 years for this segment from a 1990 interview.

So why am I sharing my thoughts on Washington’s use of misleading budget rhetoric?

Because while I’ve pontificated about this issue in the past (three times in 2011 and two times in 2012), it’s definitely time for a refresher course.

I’m motivated by this chart from the folks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. They want readers to believe that balancing the budget over the next 10 years would require drastic spending cuts.

To understand what’s wrong with this CRFB chart, let’s go to the latest 10-year forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

You’ll notice that this year’s federal budget is $5.87 trillion. And you’ll also notice that revenues in 2032 are projected to climb above $6.66 trillion.

At the risk of showing off my amazing math skills, $6.66 trillion is more than $5.87 trillion. Indeed, nearly $800 billion higher.

And what does that mean? Well, it means that we can balanced the budget by 2032 so long as spending does not increase by more than $800 billion between now and 2032. As illustrated by this chart.

To be fair to the CRFB crowd, they didn’t use make-believe numbers.

Their estimate is based on what would happen if the federal budget is left on autopilot, which means the budget grows every year because of factors such as inflation, demographic change, and previously legislated program expansions.

They then compared that artificial “baseline” to projected revenues. That’s how they came up with an estimate of a 26 percent budget cut.

In reality, though, government would be spending more than 13 percent more in 2032 when compared to 2023.

Here’s the bottom line: If CRFB or anyone else wants to argue that the budget should grow by more than 13 percent over the next nine years, they can make that argument. They can say that various programs are important and that overall spending should increase because of inflation. Or demographics.

Heck, they can even say spending should grow at a rapid pace because AOC and Bernie want bigger government.

We can then have an honest and fair debate. I’ll argue we need a TABOR-style spending cap and they can argue we should be like Greece or Italy.

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Today is the 10th anniversary of International Liberty, and I was initially tempted to commemorate the day with another introspective column.

But I decided on a different focus because I just read a story that combines two things – wasteful spending and Washington dishonesty – that I don’t like.

Let’s look at the article, which was published in The Hill.

The Senate Budget Committee on Thursday approved a GOP-backed budget resolution that would allow for draconian spending cuts by reducing both defense and nondefense spending for 2020. …The Senate’s budget sticks to the legal caps for defense — falling from $716 billion to $643 billion, including off-book funds — and nondefense, which would drop from $640 billion to $542 billion. …The spending blueprint also would decrease spending on Medicaid, children’s health insurance and Affordable Care Act subsidies by $281 billion, and on Medicare by $77 billion. “…this is a disastrous budget for the middle class and working families of this country,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the panel’s ranking member.

I was initially semi-excited when I read the story.

After all, we desperately need “draconian spending cuts” in Washington.

But I was only “semi-excited” because I feared – based on past experience – that these supposed reduction were fake.

So I decided to look at the actual numbers in the Senate’s proposed budget.

Lo and behold, my skepticism was warranted. There are zero genuine cuts. Instead, spending increases by an average of 3.5 percent annually under the Senate’s “draconian” budget plan.

Politicians claim there are “cuts” because spending levels in the Senate plan (orange line) don’t rise as fast as what would happen if spending was left on autopilot (blue line).

But this simply means that the burden of government spending won’t grow as fast as previously planned. I’ve exposed this scam in discussions with John Stossel and Judge Napolitano.

And I’ve condemned the Washington Post for playing this dishonest game as well. You also won’t be surprised that Obama used this dodgy approach.

The political elite like this dodgy game because they can pretend they are fiscally responsible while simultaneously making government bigger.

The bottom line is that politicians should be honest. If they want to argue that spending should grow 3.5 percent yearly (or even more), they should explain why Washington deserves more money.

But don’t lie to us about supposed spending cuts when the budget is expanding.

P.S. Remember the “sequester”? Politicians and interest groups squealed that the world was going to end because of an automatic spending cut that wasn’t even a cut.

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I’ve repeatedly tried to expose pervasive fiscal dishonesty in Washington.

In these John Stossel and Judge Napolitano interviews, for instance, I explain that the crooks in DC have created a system that allows them to claim they’re cutting the budget when the burden of government spending actually is rising.

This sleazy system is designed in part to deceive the American people, and the current squabbling over the fiscal cliff is a good example. The President claims he has a “balanced approach” that involves budget cuts, but look at the second chart at this link and you will see that he’s really proposing bigger government.

This dishonest approach also was used by the President’s Fiscal Commission and last year’s crummy debt limit deal was based on this form of fiscal prevarication.

WSJ Baseline Con

Here are some key excerpts from a Wall Street Journal editorial exposing this scam.

…President Obama and John Boehner are playing by the dysfunctional Beltway rules. The rules work if you like bigger government, but Republicans need a new strategy, which starts by exposing the rigged game of “baseline budgeting.” …numbers have no real meaning because they are conjured in the wilderness of mirrors that is the federal budget process. Since 1974, Capitol Hill’s “baseline” has automatically increased spending every year according to Congressional Budget Office projections, which means before anyone has submitted a budget or cast a single vote. Tax and spending changes are then measured off that inflated baseline, not in absolute terms. …Democrats designed this system to make it easier to defend annual spending increases and to portray any reduction in the baseline as a spending “cut.” Chris Wallace called Timothy Geithner on this “gimmick” on “Fox News Sunday” this week, only to have the Treasury Secretary insist it’s real. …in the current debate the GOP is putting itself at a major disadvantage by negotiating off the phony baseline. …If Republicans really want to slow the growth in spending, they need to stop playing by Beltway rules and start explaining to America why Mr. Obama keeps saying he’s cutting spending even as spending and deficits keep going up and up and up.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that other nations rely on this crooked system, most notably the United Kingdom, which supposedly is imposing “savage” cuts even though government spending keeps rising (and they fooled Paul Krugman, though he seems to make a habit of misreading foreign fiscal and economic data).

But let’s return to the American fiscal situation. Republicans almost certainly will lose the battle over the fiscal cliff because they meekly are playing cards with a rigged deck controlled by the other side.

They should expose this scam by using nominal numbers and looking at year-over-year changes in both taxes and spending. I did that last year and showed how simple it is to balance the budget in a short period of time.

They key thing to understand is that (barring a recession) tax revenues rise every year. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office projects that tax revenue will climb by an average of more than 6 percent annually over the next 10 years – even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent.

So all that’s really needed to bring red ink under control is a modest bit of spending restraint. This video is from 2010, but the analysis is still completely relevant today.

It’s amazing how good things happen when you follow the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

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About this time last year, with the White House about to release a new budget, the press was filled with stories about President Obama being a tough-minded budget cutter.

Once the budget was released, I looked at the real numbers and explained how the burden of government spending would jump by $2 trillion in just 10 years if the President’s plan was enacted.

So why is there such a disconnect? Why does the establishment media report about “cuts” that would “slash” the budget, when actual spending is rising?

I explain this scam to John Stossel.

I made similar points last year in this interview with Judge Napolitano.

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One of the first things I learned when coming to Washington is that there is pervasive institutional dishonesty. A classic example is the way politicians have rigged the system so a “spending cut” takes place if the budget grows by, say, 6 percent instead of 8 percent.

This is sort of like claiming your diet is successful because you’re gaining 2 pounds each week instead of 5 pounds. I explain this scam in an interview with Judge Napolitano.

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