Exchequer

Back-of-the-Envelope Balanced Budget

In one of the most awkward and vapid performances I can remember his having given, Pres. Barack Obama yesterday made it clear that he has learned absolutely nothing from the debt-ceiling debate — that he may be incapable of learning. He continued to talk nonsense about government “investing” in this, that, and the other, and said that was how the nation creates jobs. It was a self-discrediting performance.

He also promised to raise taxes. For Obama, taxes plainly are not in the main a fiscal issue, but an emotional one. He remains fixated on general-aviation consumers and energy companies, and he promises to stick it to them. (Economic reality: Oil is scarce, speeches are plentiful.)

“You can’t close the deficit with just spending cuts,” he declared. And he’s almost right about that. John Boehner can’t close the deficit with just spending cuts. Paul Ryan can’t do it. Senate Republicans can’t do it. President Obama can. That is because Barack Obama is at present the most important reason why you can’t close the deficit with just spending cuts.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the 2012 deficit will amount to 7 percent of GDP, or about $1.1 trillion. At 16.6 percent of GDP, federal tax revenue is 1.3 percentage points off its historical average of 17.9 percent of GDP; spending, at 23.6 percent of GDP, is significantly farther off the trendline, 2.9 percentage points more than its historical average of 20.7 percent of GDP. Spending, not revenue, is the real outlier.

What would a cuts-only balanced budget look like? There are lots of options. Eliminating Social Security would almost get you there by itself. Eliminating Social Security and Medicare would put you well into the black. But that isn’t going to happen. Neither is what I’m going to propose, but here’s my back-of-the-envelope balanced budget, with no tax increases:

1.      Social Security: Yeah, they’ll say you’re throwing Granny off the cliff. But it’s her or the grandkids. So implement aggressive means-testing and other reforms to cut 20 percent of spending for $150 billion in savings.

2.      Medicare: Ditto, for $100 billion in savings.

3.      Keep on going and reduce Medicaid and other health-care services spending by 10 percent: $33 billion.

4.      National defense: Republicans will howl, but there’s room for a 10 percent cut to all national-defense spending, including non-DoD activities such as DoE’s work maintaining our nuclear arsenal. That nets $74 billion in savings. Surely we can slaughter hapless desert barbarians more cheaply.

5.      “Other income security.” That’s the welfare state bits and pieces not included in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, etc. Welfare of the checks-from-Uncle variety. Eliminating it entirely saves $159 billion. 

6.      Welfare for bureaucrats: Making federal-employee retirement and disability systems totally self-funding saves $123 billion.

7.      Eliminate federal education spending entirely: elementary, secondary, and higher-ed. Leaving it to the states and to the market saves us $106 billion. Harvard will figure something out.

8.      Eliminate “community and regional-development” spending, a.k.a. boondoogles and slush funds, except for disaster relief: $15 billion.

9.      Get farmers off welfare: $19 billion. Suck it up, Elmer.

10.  Foreign aid, international development, international-security assistance, etc. Quit meddling abroad and propping up Third World potentates, and save $44 billion.

11.  Cut all the “energy” spending on “energy information,” “energy emergency preparedness,” etc. — all the energy spending that doesn’t actually produce any energy. And throw federal energy-conservation spending on the fire, too. Cutting the bureaucratic answer to Jimmy Carter’s sweater saves $12 billion.

12.  “Advancing commerce” doesn’t. We’re looking at you, SBA et al.: $23 billion.

13.  Federal law enforcement: Cut spending by 10 percent. Legalizing it saves us $3 billion.

14.  Space flight: We aren’t flying in space anymore. Staying grounded saves $17 billion.

15.  Downsize Smokey the Bear: Cutting land-management, recreation, natural resources, etc., by half saves $21 billion.

16.  Quit subsidizing suburban sprawl: Cutting transportation spending by 10 percent saves $10 billion.

17.  Save $36 billion by cutting health research and training. Let Pfizer do it.

18.  The real-estate market isn’t going to make a comeback. So eliminate federal housing assistance and save $60 billion.

19.  Cut food stamps by 10 percent, save $11 billion.

20.  I know, I promised no tax increases, so that’s a 19-point plan to balance the budget: Just over $1 trillion in savings. No. 20 is a bonus tax hike: Eliminate the stupid and destructive mortgage-interest deduction and have the national debt paid off by the time the kids being born this year graduate from college.

Don’t like my version? Get your 2012 estimates from OMB here and tell me how you’d balance the budget.

—  Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.

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