Jacob Lew, the top budget official at the White House, thinks budgets are beautiful. In 1999, while serving as a budget geek in the Clinton administration, he observed—in what you have to believe was a solemn whisper—that “budgets aren't books of numbers. They're a tapestry, the fabric, of what we believe.” The trillions of taxpayer dollars the federal government spends each year add up to something truly meaningful: “The numbers tell a story, a self-portrait of what we are as a country.”
Today, Lew has an op-ed in The New York Times that echoes those old sentiments. “The budget,” he writes,” is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.” The budget is a story, a song, a hymn to our nation and its people. Look inward. Can’t you see it, feel it, right there, in the dark of your heart, the depths of your soul? It’s like staring into the abyss.
There’s nothing poetic about the reasons why the budget situation is so bleak. We are out of money, the budgepocalypse is nigh, and the Obama administration’s last excuse for not doing anything about it—the president’s fiscal commission—turned out to be exactly the sort of wholly predictable avoid-the-problem gimmickry the president promised it wouldn’t be.
Nevertheless, it’s now time to actually make a budget. And Lew, in his official capacity as White House Budget Poet Office of Management and Budget Director, wants you all to know that although budget cutting may be hard, the Obama administration is prepared to do it: “Make no mistake,” he writes, “this will not be easy. It will require tough choices since every decision to invest in one program will necessitate a cut somewhere else.”
To prove it, Lew has three examples of programs that the Obama administration is prepared to trim: a community service-block grant fund, which the White House is prepared to cut by half, or $350 million; the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which the Obama administration proposes to cut by 25 percent, or $125 million; and a community development program that the administration says can be cut by 7.5 percent, or $300 million. These aren’t all the cuts Obama is willing to make, Lew writes, but as a sampling “they reflect the tough calls he had to make.”
See how agonizing this is? Why, that’s nearly $775 million. Out of a trillion dollar-plus deficit this year alone, and a total of $12 trillion in deficit spending that can be reasonably expected between now and 2021. Maybe Lew is right: The budgets do tell us a story about ourselves. But if so, the story they tell is of a federal government so addicted to spending that it has to published a New York Times op-ed congratulating itself for making the hard, hard choices necessary to cut less than a billion dollars from the budget at a time when the country is tumbling toward a damaged credit rating and a debt crisis. It really is some kind of beautiful.