Sunday, January 6, 2013

What Would You Trim From the Budget?

I am not an economist.  In fact, I try to make it clear to people that I'm generally pretty bad with numbers.  I *do* get the concepts that underly mathematics and algebra, and I can follow a lot of formal logic and calculus - but I'm really bad at arithmetic.  As a result, I tend to rely on others with better number foo to do the heavy lifting when it comes to money and finance discussion.

But I do know words, and I know that they can be slippery - and with the right words, you can wipe away all the careful work done by number-folk.

So, as our long national monetary nightmare drags on, we keep hearing certain words that seem to hold the promise of some kind of answer without ever really giving one.  It's literally like a nightmare, where you are running frantically and getting nowhere, while the deus ex machina hovers just out of the corner of your eye.  It's maddening, because the real answer is to just wake up, and start your day - but you can't help thinking that whatever the voices in the nightmare were whispering held some kind of important Truth(tm).

I think that nagging will-'o-the-wisp idea is what drives so many people to fall back on repeating the same things - those recurring ideas that sound so attractive but never really give you an answer. In particular, I'm thinking about the one that implies that our Federal government's budget should be run in a more "common sense" manner; that our spending should not be so much greater than the income from taxes.  My boss is fond of trotting that one out, and it's attractive to a lot of my libertarian friends - here's an example of their argument captured by one blogger.  In that piece, the writer deals with a rebuttal of that notion from economist L. Randall Wray. (The Wray's credit, he has also published a much more detailed/less combative paper on the subject.)

I won't speculate on which side is "right" and which is "wrong" - only point out that neither of them really seems to have The Answer. What I do wish is that those who argue so vehemently that "spending" (which is one of those slippery concepts when you start talking about the federal budget) should be trimmed would spell out what "spending" they really think needs to go.

You can find little arguments all over the place - the "Big Bird" controversy, the "99%" movement, and the perennial arms-flapping surrounding the Defense budget - but very few are able to single out and defend any cuts that would actually bring the numbers down.

And it's not like the U.S. budget is an unknowable mystery.  Here's just a short list of tools for tinkering with the budget, and understanding where taxpayer money goes:
What We Pay For
The Budget Simulator - from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
Budget Hero game - from American Public Media's Marketplace website
The New York Times's Budget Puzzle

My challenge to you: go, play, learn.  Balance the budget (if you can) using some or all of these tools. And then share your solution with the rest of us.  Let's do what our Representatives can't seem to do: have a conversation about what a real solution could look like.