Obama Budget Adds Up to a Big Problem

This article appeared in Marketplace on April 22, 2009.
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President Obama has ordered his cabinet to root out $100 million in unnecessary spending over the next 90 days. That sounds like a lot of money, but $100 million comes to three‐​thousandths of a percent of Obama’s upcoming $3.5 trillion budget.

Some commentators are mocking the feebleness of this effort. But I think, more than anything, the fact that so much can amount to so little points to a bigger problem for our democracy. It drives home the fact that $3.5 trillion is a number so mindbogglingly vast that voters have little hope of really grasping how much our government is spending.

One trillion is one with 12 zeros, if that helps. A billion is a thousand million, and a trillion is a thousand billion. Three and a half thousand billion. That’s our budget. Yeah, I still can’t picture it either.

George W. Bush was a bigger spender than big‐​spending Lyndon Johnson. Obama makes them both look like like Scrooge. The president’s budget, titled “A New Era of Responsibility,” will push up public debt as a share of GDP to levels not seen since WWII. His goal to halve the deficit by 2013 still leaves us with deficits twice as large as Bush’s.

If we’re responsible, we’re going to have to pay for all of this, sooner or later. But how? One hundred million spending cuts every 90 days for four years just won’t make a dent. So unless Obama summons the will to make truly deep spending cuts, his only other options to move us back toward the black are big middle‐​class tax increases, inflation, or some combination of both.

But any of these paths could lead to political suicide and damage our already sputtering economy. So I predict that the New Era of Responsibility will involve more laughable $100 million budget hawk pantomime. Which is to say, Obama’s going to kick the can down the road and hope for a miracle.

Media AppearanceWill Wilkinson says $100 million in unnecessary spending is very little when you look at the bigger picture of Obama’s budget. (April 22, 2009) [MP3]