The Budget As Board Game
by Scott Bittle
In a torrent of news about President Obama's new budget proposal, two things really stand out to us – and they're probably not the points upon which most of the coverage and commentary will focus.
One point comes from the Wall Street Journal's interactive graphic of the federal budget process, which is something to make you laugh or cry, as you prefer.
This eight-stage, 27-box graphic could be the basis of a board game for particularly wonky kids. But at a moment when everyone in Washington is combing through President Obama's $3.8 trillion budget proposal, with its record $1.6 trillion deficit, it's important to remember just how long and complicated this process is.
That doesn't help the public come to grips with this. Budgets are all about setting priorities, and while this budget proposal tells us what the Obama administration thinks the priorities should be, there's nothing in this long, convoluted process that helps the public sort through options and choices to figure out what their priorities are.
The second point that strikes us comes from the sheer volume of coverage, analyzing the budget proposal from so many angles that it's hard for anyone who's not immersed in the coverage to keep up. (If you want to make a start on it, we'd suggest this roundup of stories from almost every angle in the Washington Post's 44 blog, and of course the Choosing Our Fiscal Future news tracker). No matter what angle you're interested in, somebody's covered it.
But in all the analysis, some of the basics may get passed over too quickly. So it's worth returning to a point that every budget expert knows, but relatively few people outside the government appreciate. The easiest way to tell it is to quote from this section of the president's budget submission, under the heading "The Unsustainable Path" (it's on page 42, if you're determined enough to get that far).
The deficit is projected to fall from its recent peak levels as the economy recovers from the recession and the worldwide financial crisis eases. By the end of the 10-year budget window, the deficit has returned to a lower level, and the debt held by the public is no longer rising rapidly relative to GDP. However, the fiscal position is not sustainable in the long run without further policy changes. Beyond the 10-year budget window, increasing health costs and population aging will place the budget on an unsustainable course unless policy changes are made to address these challenges.
Nearly everybody who studies the federal budget, including the government's own experts, ends up using the same word to describe it: unsustainable. The trends of persistent deficits, rising health care costs, and an aging population means that the federal government will pile up enormous amounts of debt over the next few decades, more than it can handle.
There are ways to avoid this, but the sooner we act, the better. The Choosing the Nation's Fiscal Future report suggested four different paths to solve the problem, covering a wide range of philosophical perspectives. The report also posed six questions to ask about any federal budget, which really helps to put the news coverage in perspective.
When it comes to getting the public engaged in a problem, a complicated process and coverage that skips over the fundamentals is a bad combination. And we absolutely have to get the public involved in this process, because this problem, wonky as it might be, simply can't be solved without them.