Government Spending

Hawk in Hock

Obama pretends to be frugal as we sink deeper in debt.

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Remember President Obama's New Era of Responsibility? It got off to an inauspicious start, with a $787 billion economic stimulus package, a $410 billion appropriations bill, and a record $1.8 trillion budget deficit.

But now Obama wants to signal that he's getting serious about cutting the federal budget. Unfortunately, his plan hinges on the assumption that Americans do not know how to calculate percentages.

Last week the Obama administration, after going through the budget "line by line," unveiled $17 billion in budget cuts. That amounts to less than 0.5 percent of the president's proposed $3.6 trillion budget for the next fiscal year and less than 2 percent of the projected $1.3 trillion deficit.

On Monday the White House raised its estimate of the budget deficit for the current fiscal year from $1.75 trillion to $1.84 trillion. The $89 billion correction was more than five times the cuts Obama had proposed four days before.

The president dismissed critics who were unimpressed by his $17 billion in savings as inside-the-Beltway snobs with no understanding of how regular people view things. "In Washington," he told reporters, "I guess that's considered trivial. Outside of Washington, that's still considered a lot of money."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs used the same rhetorical strategy. "I've said this before, and I'll say it again: $17 billion is a lot of money to people in America," he said. "I understand that it might not be to some people in this town, but that's probably why we're sitting on a $12 trillion American Express bill"—a reference to the national debt.

This is the sort of populist argument that insults the public's common sense while pretending to flatter it. Yes, $17 billion is a lot of money for an individual, a municipality, even a mid-sized state. But it is emphatically not a lot of money for a federal government that spends trillions of dollars every year. If you had $12,000 in credit card debt and paid off $17 of it, would you feel like you had made significant progress?

"These savings, large and small, add up," the president said. That is literally true; they just don't add up to much.

But wait. The $17 billion in savings Obama touted last week was on top of the cuts he had already ordered his cabinet to find. Last month, saying he was determined to make government "as efficient as possible" and ensure that "every taxpayer dollar is being spent wisely," he instructed department and agency heads to come up with a total of $100 million in savings.

Here is how The New York Times described the reaction this mandate elicited: "Budget analysts promptly burst out laughing." The fiscally conservative Republican Study Committee, perhaps fearing that the White House was right in thinking that voters can't do basic math, performed the calculation for them, dubbing the president's initiative "Obama's 0.0025% spending cut."

Obama also talks about $2 trillion in "savings" over the next decade, but this amount consists mostly of tax hikes and phantom reductions from unrealistically high baselines. Meanwhile, he is seeking big increases in domestic spending, especially on energy, health care, and education.

This year, the Associated Press notes, "the government will have to borrow nearly 50 cents for every dollar it spends." Even with optimistic economic assumptions, the Obama administration projects budget deficits of more than $500 billion every year from 2010 to 2019, totaling $7.1 trillion in additional debt at a time when Social Security and Medicare spending will be skyrocketing due to the retirement of baby boomers—a problem Obama has not begun to address.

"We can no longer afford to spend as if deficits do not matter and waste is not our problem," the president said last week. "We can no longer afford to leave the hard choices for the next budget, the next administration—or the next generation." I wish that Obama had some influence on the one who is setting the administration's fiscal policy.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2009 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. his plan hinges on the assumption that Americans do not know how to calculate percentages.

    Don’t they put “tip calculators” in cellphones?

  2. How do you pst without all the other info up there? That’s all stealth and hella cool mang.

  3. Kyle Jordan, can you translate your comment into English, or at least something intelligible to anyone other than yourself? Seems like you’ve left out a significant portion of whatever you were thinking about and assumed that we’d follow.

  4. I was asking how the first poster was able to make a post with no date and time, mang.

  5. Unt,

    I understood him fine. Let me translate.

    Look at comment 1. It has nothing but # where ours have a date/time stamp and a comment link.

    How does one accomplish that?

  6. Unfortunately, writes Senior Editor Jacob Sullum, his plan hinges on the assumption that Americans do not know how to calculate percentages.

    [Obama fanboy Miss America hating voice]
    Something else this poor administration inherited from the Bush administration!
    [/Obama fanboy Miss America hating voice]

  7. Nobody is going to pay attention to the deficit, unfortunately. American voters lack sufficient attention span. They notice:

    A) They want something. If someone doesn’t give it to them immediately (too urgent to debate), or pass the right law – BAD!
    B) Someone raised their taxes – BAD!

    For each Congress/administration, attempting to address the national debt is like accepting a package from the Unabomber. What’s the incentive to ‘own’ the issue?

    As long as your proposal for a new cabinet-level Department of Sharing is sufficiently removed from the consequences, you pick up votes. The media doesn’t like scary numbers, graphs, and facts…and who’s against sharing?

    It’s like waiting too long to scold a puppy – it doesn’t know you’re tapping it with a newspaper because it shit on the rug.

  8. Obama Lied, the Economy Died.

  9. I have figured out #.

    The Singularity has arrived. These predictions for the past 50 years, that it was just 10 or 20 years away have finally come true.

    Ron Bailey has not reported it because he is one of it.

  10. robc,

    What the hell are you entering to do that?

  11. reason.com does a very poor job of sanitizing fields, allowing you to play some games.

  12. Look at the page source. 🙂

    Really simple html to do it.

  13. Too cryptic, robc. WE DEMAND ANSWERS GODDAMMIT

  14. Once I figured it out a few weeks back, I considered posting this way, hoping it would encourage reason to sanitize better, but incif inputs my name for me so I havent bothered to do it.

  15. Look at the page source. 🙂

    Really simple html to do it.

    Sadly, I am no longer an HTML Ninja. Not catching what is different between your comments and mine, but giving this a shot.

  16. Unsanitary fields (or whatever) aside, the point is, Obama sucks.

  17. Mr. Sullum you are a racist!

  18. Not sure in IE, but View Page Source in firefox has colored context highlights which makes the difference real easy to see.

  19. http://www.lesjones.com/2009/05/12/unemployment-numbers-worse-than-projected/

    Unemployment is now worse than even the “doomsday sccenerio” McHopey warned of if he didn’t get his porkulus package. None of the rosey projections of how the prorkulus was going to create jobs have panned out. We are just further in debt and worse off.

  20. Even with optimistic economic assumptions, the Obama administration projects budget deficits of more than $500 billion every year from 2010 to 2019, … “We can no longer afford to spend as if deficits do not matter and waste is not our problem,” the president said last week. “We can no longer afford to leave the hard choices for the next budget, the next administration-or the next generation.”

    A serious question for Obama fans – How do you feel about being treated like you’re retarded?
    “Well, Bush did it too” is not an answer.

  21. You don’t understand J sub D. Bush made him do it. Bush was so bad that Obama had no choice but to pass a useless stimulus bill, continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spend a few trillion more on TARP and propose a budget that pays off every Democratic chronie. It is all Bush’s fault. Everything BO does is because Bush pulling the strings.

  22. Bush’s deficits cratered the economy, forcing Obama to borrow trillions to deal with the results of Bush’s deficit spending. Clear? 🙂

  23. “Bush’s deficits cratered the economy, forcing Obama to borrow trillions to deal with the results of Bush’s deficit spending. Clear? :-)”

    So a $400 billion dollar deficit cratered the economy and the sollution is to have a $1.5 trillion deficit? Further, aren’t the Obamatrons all claiming that it doens’t matter where the stimulus money is spent as long as it is spent it will help the economy? If that is true, how did Bush’s deficits crater the economy? Shouldn’t they have been stimulating the economy all this time?

  24. C’mon, John. Obama’s deficits are for spending going to the Right People. Of course they will stimulate donations to the Democratic Party the economy.

  25. John, I’m on your side here, hence the “:-)” in my original comment.

  26. Sorry JSH. Sometimes it is hard to read sarcasm.

  27. One of the only things good about Obama is watching the idiots that voted for him being treated like the fools they are.

  28. Sometimes it is hard to read sarcasm.

    No it isnt.

  29. No it isnt.

    Was that supposed to be sarcastic?

    Oh, and I call a misdemeanor Joe’z Memorial Law infringement on the missing apostrophe.

  30. And one on R C Dean for the erroneous capitalization of joe’z Memorial Law.

  31. John,
    I’m thinking jsh was being sarcastic.

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