Another Chart That Should Accompany All Debt-Ceiling Discussions

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/07/another-chart-that-should-accompany-all-debt-ceiling-discussions/242604/