We are in budget star wars when budget talk becomes budget hyper talk

I  have not been the most loyal star wars viewer.   I saw the first movie, then maybe the second.  After that I confess that I lost interest.

But for me,    the most vivid memory of my star wars experience was the moment when the space ship’s captain clicked on the hyper speed switch and the craft instantly lurched ahead at a speed that was larger by a factor of 10 or100.   The millions of stars that populated the surrounding galaxy rushed past in a blur of streaking white shapes.

For today’s economic discussion, the notable issue is not the stars speeding past.  It is the instantaneous increase of speed by a factor of 100.   So it is with the economic discussions of our day.  We talk about dollar amounts that approach $500 billion, $600 billion, $900 billion.  And then, all of a sudden, we are back at 1.  Not 1 billion, but 1 trillion.

To maintain context and continuity of the economic narrative, we should not let our political or economic leaders refer to $1 trillion.  Rather we should insist that they call it like it is $1,000 billion.

After all, which sounds larger, 800 or 1?  If someone were to tell you we were incurring a budget deficit of 1 something, or 800 something, which would sound smaller?  If you were to say the 1, you would not be alone.  And that is the problem.

We should not permit our politicians to hypershift from billions to trillions.  It lulls the vast majority of the public into a sense of comfort and complacency.   If our deficit is larger than $900 billion and is approaching $1,000 billion, let’s call it like it is.  Do not let our political leaders downshift to trillions to make us feel more comfortable with what is fundamentally a very large budget indeed.

When I think back to my childhood, my father would frequently ask which is heavier. a pound of lead or a pound of feathers.

I ask you the budgetary equivalent.  Which is larger?  A budget of $3,800 billion or a budget of $3.8 trillion?

Economics 101 — How did we have a Federal Budget surplus in the year 2000

Who among us can remember the most controversial economic topic of the Presidential Campaign of the year 2000?

As unimaginable as it sounds today, the topic was  “what to do with the federal budget Surplus“.  That’s right, Surplus !!

Without arguing about what individuals or events were responsible for growth of the budget deficit during the intervening years, let’s simply take a look at what happened to the dollar expenditures during the 11 year period from 2000 to 2011.

Total Federal expenditures in $Billions

  Federal budget item

Year 2000

Year 2011

Largest budget items

a Social Security

$449

$775

3

b Health care

352

858

2

c Education

60

113

d Defense

358

878

1

e Welfare

176

472

4

f Protection

28

56

g Transportation

47

93

h General govt

15

29

i Other spending

80

96

j Interest

223

230

5

k Total Spending

1,788

3,600

l Surplus (Deficit)

$236

($1,299)

As we can see, the total expenditures (as shown in row k) have more than doubled in these 11 years from $1,788 billion to $3,600 billion dollars.

If we look further, we can see that the top 5 expense items are

Social security,
Healthcare,
Defense,
Welfare  and
Interest

In fact, these five items accounted for 87% of the total budget in 2000.  By 2011, they accounted for 89% of the budget.  Arguably, these are commitments and entitlements with no flexibility whatsoever.

I am not trying to justify this growth in expenditures, nor am I trying to argue for a reduction in these expenditures.  I am simply attempting to establish a common understanding of where the money is going.

Now let’s look at these same Federal expenditures from a different angle.  What percentage of the total do we spend on defense, or social security, or healthcare?  And how has this percentage changed from 2000 to 2011?

Federal line item expenditures as a percent of the total budget


Year 2000

 
Year 2011

Change in Pct of total Change
in Pct of total
a Social Security

25.11

21.53

(3.58)

b Health care

19.69

23.83

4.15

c Education

3.36

3.14

(0.22)

d Defense

20.02

24.39

4.37

e Welfare

9.84

13.11

3.27

f Protection

1.57

1.56

(0.01)

g Transportation

2.63

2.58

(0.05)

h General govt

0.84

0.81

(0.03)

i Other spending

4.47

2.67

(1.81)

j Interest

12.47

6.39

(6.08)

As you can see, healthcare, defense, and welfare have risen dramatically as a percentage of total expenditures.  Social security and interest expense have fallen as a percentage of the total.  The other budget items have changed negligibly.

Perhaps the most interesting item is social security.  In total dollars, this item has risen 72%.  Even so, it has become a dramatically smaller part of the total budget in 2011 than it was in 2000.

And watch out for that interest expense item on row j.  If rates were to increase the windfall that the Federal Government has been receiving will disappear.

We now have a sound basis for understanding the trend in Federal spending.  This common understanding will be a foundation for future discussions.