Apportioning Blame for the Deficit

David Leonhardt's column breaking down the "causes" of the budget deficit has been widely reported and the bottom line repeated many times

President Obama’s agenda, ambitious as it may be, is responsible for only a sliver of the deficits, despite what many of his Republican critics are saying.

I have two problems with the analysis.  First, the NYTimes' excellent graphics department this time goes overboard with a big and difficult to read chart.  Matt Yglesias does much better summarizing the point with that old standby, the pie chart:
Second, although not "wrong" the Leonhardt's analysis doesn't reveal the arbitrariness of this way of apportioning deficit blame.  

The reason why the hundreds of billions of dollars of spending in Obama's agenda is said to be responsible for only a "sliver" of the deficit is that the agenda also includes taxes, thus the net effect is low.

Now Obama deserves kudos for a more honest budget process.  Indeed, if the only choices are the tax and spend party and the no-tax and spend party then I prefer the former for both economic and political reasons.  Thus as political accounting Leonhardt's conclusion is reasonable.

I suspect, however, that many people will not see that the economic accounting is arbitrary and potentially misleading.  To see why, imagine that President Bush increased taxes in the last days of his administration and Obama increased spending in the first days of his administration.  We would then be in exactly the same economic position as we are now but everyone would be writing about how "Obama's ambitious agenda is responsible for a large portion of the deficit."  In other words, if it were not for Obama's spending, the deficit would be hundreds of billions of dollars lower. 

Washington is all about political accounting but we should not be misled into thinking that because Obama's agenda accounts for only a "sliver" of the deficit that this makes it a modest or cheap agenda.  The agenda is big and expensive and every dollar of spending is a dollar that adds to the deficit.  


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