This Is What Our Mandatory Spending Looks Like

Sometimes you need a picture to understand a policy. So when I say things like "It's hard to make meaningful spending cuts if you don't touch mandatory spending," that doesn't mean much if we can't visualize how much of the budget is mandatory spending -- that is, spending mandated by existing law.

This is what it means: the New York Times has created an awesome interactive Flash graph of the president's 2011 budget -- with a button that makes all the mandatory spending disappear so you can see exactly how much Obama's spending freeze is leaving warm.

Here's a 30,000-foot view of the budget:

And here's the budget if you white-out mandatory spending, which includes Social Security (bottom left box), Medicare and Medicaid (top middle to right), and income security programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance. National security, the top left box, is also almost entirely exempt from the freeze.

If you're thinking about curbing spending, don't judge outlays by which box is biggest today. Also look at the long-term trend, from the CBO. I suppose saying it for the 100th time doesn't make it any more true, but here it is: Our long-term fiscal crisis is a health care crisis, especially a Medicare crisis. That's one reason why I respect Rep. Paul Ryan for sticking out his neck and drawing up a plan to curb health care expenditures in the next twenty years, even if his method -- dramatically slow the growth in Medicare spending -- would be a blunt and unpopular pitch to the AARP.

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