The Chart That Should Accompany All Discussions of the Debt Ceiling

It's this one, from yesterday's New York Times. Click for a more detailed view, though it's pretty clear as is.

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It's based on data from the Congressional Budget Office and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Its significance is not partisan (who's "to blame" for the deficit) but intellectual. It demonstrates the utter incoherence of being very concerned about a structural federal deficit but ruling out of consideration the policy that was largest single contributor to that deficit, namely the Bush-era tax cuts.

An additional significance of the chart: it identifies policy changes, the things over which Congress and Administration have some control, as opposed to largely external shocks -- like the repercussions of the 9/11 attacks or the deep worldwide recession following the 2008 financial crisis. Those external events make a big difference in the deficit, and they are the major reason why deficits have increased faster in absolute terms during Obama's first two years than during the last two under Bush. (In a recession, tax revenues plunge, and government spending goes up - partly because of automatic programs like unemployment insurance, and partly in a deliberate attempt to keep the recession from getting worse.) If you want, you could even put the spending for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in this category: those were policy choices, but right or wrong they came in response to an external shock. 

The point is that governments can respond to but not control external shocks. That's why we call them "shocks." Governments can control their policies. And the policy that did the most to magnify future deficits is the Bush-era tax cuts. You could argue that the stimulative effect of those cuts is worth it ("deficits don't matter" etc). But you cannot logically argue that we absolutely must reduce deficits, but that we absolutely must also preserve every penny of those tax cuts. Which I believe precisely describes the House Republican position.

After the jump, from a previous "The Chart That Should..." positing, an illustration of the respective roles of external shock and deliberate policy change in creating the deficit.

UPDATE: Many people have written to ask how the impact of the "Bush-era tax cuts," enacted under George W. Bush and extended under Barack Obama (with the help, as you will recall, of huge pressure from Senate Republicans), is divided between the two presidents. I don't know and have written the creators of the chart to ask. (They have responded to say: it indicates the legacy effects of the changes made by each Administration. For instance, neither Bush nor Obama is credited with the entire cost of Pentagon spending or entitlements, but only the changes his Administration made, up or down. By this logic the long-run effect of tax cuts initiated by Bush is assigned to him, as any long-run effect of savings he initiated would be too.)

But to me it doesn't matter. As I said above, the point of the chart really isn't partisan responsibility. It is the central role of those tax cuts in creating the deficit that is now the focus of such political attention. Call them the "Obama-Extended Tax Cuts" if you'd like: either way, a deficit plan that ignores them fails a basic logic, math, and coherence test.
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From this item three months ago:

DeficitChart.png

More: For how the Democrats are mishandling both the politics and the substance of this argument, see Joshua Green on "The Democrats Cave."

For how President Obama could use his inherent powers, in a "This is bullshit" way, see Robert Kuttner.
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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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