Another Chart That Should Accompany All Debt-Ceiling Discussions

Yesterday I mentioned the New York Times chart on sources of the budget deficit, which dramatized the contradiction many House Republicans prefer not to face. As the figures demonstrated, the Bush-era tax cuts, extended last year under Obama, were the biggest single policy source of deficit increase over the past ten years. Therefore you can be for reducing deficits, or you can be for preserving the tax cuts, but you cannot rationally be for both. Even though, as I pointed out, insisting on both is the current House Republican view.

Here is another chart to the same effect, released this afternoon by the White House. It is a more comprehensive accounting of the forces that turned the large projected federal surplus as of 2001 into the large structural deficits that are dominating our politics as of 2011. Thus it attempts to explain a $12.7 trillion negative swing in public finance -- from the $2.3 trillion surplus forecast by Bill Clinton ten years ago, to the $10.4 trillion total debt Barack Obama encounters now.

The chart is more comprehensive in including not just policy changes -- deliberate adoption and extension of tax cuts, spending on TARP and other programs -- but also the effects of external pressures and shocks, mainly the recession starting in 2008. See for yourself, and click for a more detailed view.

debt_chart_wh_0.jpg


The new information in this chart is that roughly one third of the total negative swing was due to recession and related outside shocks, But the biggest component after that is again those tax cuts.

I really am not interested in the Bush-v-Obama, red-v-blue allocation of the blame. The point is the fundamental irrationality of insisting on cutting the deficit, while also insisting on preserving every penny of the tax cuts. One or the other: OK. Both of them: You're making it up. This is turning us into an international laughing stock, and it threatens to do more than that.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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