Robert Samuelson and Jeffrey Sachs on the budget

Here is Samuelson:

…government is slowly growing larger while — in many basic functions — it’s being strangled. This paradox, it seems, will be Obama’s questionable legacy.

Here is Jeffrey Sachs:

President Barack Obama’s budget this week makes clear the real political equilibrium in the US. The federal government is shrinking. Discretionary spending in the new Obama budget would shrink to 4.9 per cent of gross domestic product in 2023, compared with 7.9 per cent of GDP in 2008. Both parties have signed on to this shrinkage. Neither will try to stop it.

Both over-personalize the result in the figure of President Obama.  For reasons of mood affiliation, one calls it government growth and the other calls it government shrinkage, drawing on the same numbers.  And both are basically correct.

Addendum: David Brooks weighs in on the same topic.


Doesn't Samuelson contradict his whole point with "But it would be a hard and hazardous political task, because it would challenge the assumptions and interests of wide swaths of the public. There is no guarantee that he would succeed in altering attitudes. Already, his small proposed cuts in Social Security benefits have outraged much of the liberal base."

We've watched crisis after crisis where Obama has not succeeded as master rhetorician. There's nothing imaginative about the budget, but that's what makes it plausible. Just compare the reaction to Obama's budget against the wildly visionary ones on either side of the House.

There’s nothing imaginative about the budget, but that’s what makes it plausible.

I disagree, the President's budget is not that plausible. It imagines spending more next year than the Senate Democratic budget, but spending considerably less in 2023 (at the end of the 10 year window) after making dramatic cuts soon after President Obama is term limited out of office. That part is not plausible. (Especially so given the chance of entering another recession by the end of the 10 year budget window, a problem that equally plagued the very similar George W. Bush budgets.)

It's far more plausible in the sense of something like it getting passed.

To take another issue, the pre-K program funded with a tobacco tax is unsustainable, and another attempt to make things look good under the ten year budget window that fail immediately outside of it. Their own projections show the revenue rapidly declining towards the end of the budget window.

And, when I tell people that the number of federal civil servants has hardly grown in 50 years while the population has grown 70%, (reflecting the degree to which the budget explosion is a transfers issue which crowds everything else out) they refuse to believe me.

They blame it on the post office, but we have just as many as we did in the 60's as well (though down 300K in the last 15 years), or the military, but in FY13 the military will be barely half the size it was back then. Another myth, the "Reagan Build-Up" is barely perceptible in Active Duty membership.

Left out is the degree of "government employee-ness" of many functions that have been "outsourced." Also the change in the total real compensation of these workers and increases in productivity. But Federal jobs are increasingly hard to come by.

If federal employees worked themselves rather than outsource their work to federal contractors, it might be relevant how many direct employees of the federal government we have. The massive growth in indirect federal employees makes the numbers of direct federal employees non-representative of the system. Also, I think it should be addressed how nearly impossible it is to get fired from a federal job. Limiting the number of people with the brass ring, is a rational solution to the abuse of the system by federal workers.

Are you including contractors?

That's his point - instead of adding employees as the population grows, work has been outsourced so the employees don't show up.

As an example, the military did use civilians in many functions, especially in things like logistics. But the civilians and a significant number of military have been outsourced to contractors. The rationale given was cost savings because the private sector is more efficient. The number of government employees was reduced. Whether total employees fell or not is hard to know. But the cost of the Iraq war makes it clear that it did not save money, compared tp Vietnam and WWII.

And one of the "hidden" costs is the reduced depth of soldiers. When soldiers handle the logistics, you don't need security for the civilian cooks and drivers. And cooks and drivers can be combat soldiers who served their tour in the war. But this reduced depth was accounted for in the planning: in a war, the reserves would be called up, then the draft would bring troop levels up to sustain combat. Adding soldiers was delayed for about 5 years which resulted in the unprecedented number of combat tours required.

I get the point of the post, but doesn't anyone else find it amusing, even laughable, that budget and GDP projections 10 years out are used as evidence in support of each author's theses. What's the under/over on federal budget guesses one year out?

"doesn’t anyone else find it amusing, even laughable, that budget and GDP projections 10 years out are used as evidence in support of each author’s theses."

What would you use instead?

My made up numbers are better than your made up numbers.

In ten years when we are debating sending forces in the China-Argentina (Peru?, etc.) war during the Rubrio administration, we looking fondly back on how the bickering of Obama and Boehner really did lower the debt. It is already happened to Clinton & Gingrich.

yup. small steps toward a much better future.

Both sides need to move but the Republicans need to move more.

I'm not sure this is the case.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that this is one of those subjective statements, that's essentially unprovable and basically meaningless.

The statement is only meaningless if you have some sort of brain damage that prevents you from understanding prescriptive statements.

I am curious about the history of discussing the budget in terms of percentage of GDP. I do not recall this convention being in widespread use before President Obama.

Robert Samuelson lamenting that defense is only growing modestly. An immodest elephant, in my mind. So, I guess that if you want big Government and Big Defense you should vote for George Bush.

9 years too late to be worrying about that.

I don't know whether he is lamenting or not, but he is pointing out that, in real terms, it is going down, not growing modestly.

"Both over-personalize the result in the figure of President Obama. For reasons of mood affiliation, one calls it government growth and the other calls it government shrinkage..."

I forget who said it on a PBS show (guest on Charlie Rose??), but the WSJ stated in 2004 that GW Bush, who won by 3 million popular vote, had won a "mandate", but in 2012 deemed Obama' 5 million win something like "a closely contested victory."

I think the thing that angers conservatives is Obama has taken Republican proposal after Republican proposal and shaded it Democratic and got it passed, or denounced and blocked by Republicans as radical leftist extremism... ...Leaving conservatives with zero policy options that have any hope in hell. Obamacare is something that seems to have come from nowhere to many conservatives because they have mind-wiped the two decades of debate over health care access and costs from their memories. Gay rights is a reversal of the 90s Republican resolution. Immigration is a redo of Reagan's accomplishment.

And Obama is the most divisive president ever in most people's lifetimes because he has divided Republicans more than they have been since 1965 when Republicans were the key to passing civil rights for LBJ. After that, the party silently split with only conservatives remaining two decades later, and the only thing driving conservatives was getting power. Until Obama exploited the demographics, Republicans had a hold on power.

And Obama has been more focused on deficits and debt than GW Bush and Reagan. HW as a traditional Republican called it voodoo economics, and Clinton addressed the deficit that drove Ross Perot so nuts he ran for president electing Clinton.

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