Budget Numbers You Can Understand

Annie Lowrey has a clever piece up that puts the federal budget in perspective with a simple conceit:

For our purposes, let's use $60,000 as the government's income and $85,000 as its expenses.

Where does all of that spending go? Mostly, to mandatory programs, spending that does not change much year-to-year and is not easily reduced. But given that mandatory spending makes up about 60 percent of spending, if the debt is going to come down, these are the line items that need to change. Next year, Obama is requesting $17,400 for Social Security, $10,700 for Medicare, $6,100 for Medicaid, and $13,600 for other mandatory programs such as food stamps. There's no way around any of those expenditures, which total about $48,000or more than three-quarters of the federal government's annual income. (Last year, mandatory spending alone actually exceeded income.)

Next she tackles the discretionary budget:

First and foremost is security spending. The country needs to fund the Afghanistan war and the Department of Defense. This is not cheap: In fiscal year 2012, Obama is asking for $20,000 for overall security costs.

So far, my friend, you're at $68,000. No cuts yet, and you've already blown your budget by about $8,000. But waitthere's more, as they say. You have to pay for all the debt you're ringing up. This year, you are on the hook for $5,500, and that is just for interest payments to creditors. So you see the problem here: Before you've even gotten to anything that anyone even talks about cutting, you're already about 25 percent over budget.

So what's left? "All of the money for bridges, schools, nuclear power plants, foreign aid, space flight, and everything else." And the numbers? "In the discretionary budget, the sums are astounding not because they're so huge, but because they're so puny: $400 on energy, $500 on agriculture, $1,000 on housing and urban development, and $1,800 on education, for example." What makes more sense? Eviscerating those budgets, or means testing social security, raising the retirement age, and cutting back on our military commitments?

We all know the answer. Except for Obama, the Democrats and the Republicans. Maybe it will take a national default to get our political leaders to lead.