Sunday, March 25, 2012

Can we get a serious budget plan?

Another year, another display of both parties' complete inability to propose any serious solution to the country's fiscal situation.

The Democrats have not passed a budget in years. They seem completely unwilling to do anything about the fact that entitlement spending (if left unchanged) will explode the federal budget in a decade or so. Whether faced with a budget deficit, a proposed spending cut, or a new program that they have no way to pay for, the leftists' solution is the same: "Tax the rich." The problem is, there just aren't that many rich people. There has been lots of talk about the so-called Buffett rule, which would ensure that everyone earning at least $1 million annually pays at least 30% of their income in taxes--but even the Huffington Post admits that adapting the Buffett rule would bring in only $47 billion over the next eleven years. That's about $4.3 billion per year, which is about 0.2% of the 2011 budget deficit.

We did, at one point, have a fairly reasonable center-left budget plan: the Simpson-Bowles plan. Unfortunately it was rejected, not by the Republicans, but by President Obama.

On the right, we have Paul Ryan's budget. It is perhaps a good conservative thought experiment, and it allows the Republicans to tell the Democrats, "Hey, at least we have a budget proposal." In reality, however, Ryan accomplished no more than he would have if he had proposed a budget plan for the Land of Oz. Besides being dead on arrival in the Senate, the Ryan plan seems unlikely to attract support from anywhere close to a majority of the American people.

The Ryan plan does not address the deficit at all in the short term (although a supply-sider could make the argument that his tax cuts could spur economic growth that would decrease the deficit). In the long term, Ryan would shrink all discretionary spending (everything other than Social Security, health entitlements, and interest payments) to 3.75% of GDP. Military spending (aside from Iraq and Afghanistan) is currently about 3.5% of GDP, and Ryan refuses to cut the military. So that leaves 0.25% of GDP for everything else: infrastructure, border patrol, federal law enforcement, food and water safety, veterans benefits, the safety net, etc. While non-military discretionary spending does need to be cut somewhat, slashing it from its current level (about 3.5% of GDP) to 0.25% is simply ridiculous.

One could imagine a center-right proposal, combining revenue-neutral tax reform with some cuts in discretionary spending and measures to stop the runaway growth in entitlements. But nothing like that has ever been proposed.

Right now, it is clear that Congress and the White House care much more about making political statements, upholding pledges, and sticking it to the other party than they care about actually governing the country.

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