The Magazine

Obama's Fuzzy Math

A trillion here, a trillion there . . .

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By STEPHEN MOORE
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In his press conference last Tuesday, Barack Obama said that America must reject the "borrow and spend" policies of the past in favor of a strategy of "save and invest." Sounds good. So why is Obama proposing to borrow and spend more than any president in the history of the republic? Already in the first 45 days of his administration, the federal government has authorized more debt spending than Ronald Reagan did in eight years in office.

Then last week the Democrats' own Congressional Budget Office found that the ten-year deficits of the Obama plan will be about $2.3 trillion higher than the $6.97 trillion the White House is projecting. This is the policy of the party that was swept back into power in 2006 and 2008 promising a return to an era of fiscal responsibility.

Welcome to the Obama doctrine. It is built on the high stakes economic gamble that the public and the bond markets will tolerate trillions of dollars of borrowing to pay for massive expansions in government spending on popular income transfer programs. The corollary to this doctrine is that the left will create a political imperative to jack up tax rates to pay for higher spending commitments made today.

But the news on the red ink front is much worse than the president or even the CBO's budget report suggests. If all of Obama's "transformational" policy objectives--from global warming taxes to universal health care to doubling the Department of Energy's budget--are enacted, the debt is likely to increase from about 40 percent of GDP today to close to 100 percent of GDP by 2018. The ten-year debt is likely to be at least $6 trillion higher--or more than one-half trillion of higher deficits a year from now until forever--than the Obama budget projects.

These are uncharted levels of debt for the United States--though not for such high-flying nations as Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico. This hemorrhaging of U.S. government debt will be happening at precisely the time when, in a rational world, the government would be running surpluses, in anticipation of the retirement of some 80 million baby boomers who will soon collect multiple trillions of dollars of government benefits from Medicare and Social Security.

There are three ways that the Obama administration is understating the spending and debt levels embedded in the president's budget policies.

First, Obama uses highly optimistic assumptions on how fast the economy is going to grow and how many jobs are going to be created over the next five years. I've worked in a presidential budget office before. Believe me: If you manipulate the economic assumptions on unemployment and GDP growth, you can make the budget deficit in the future be whatever you want it to be. You can even, as Obama claims to do, magically cut a deficit in half without cutting a single program. From 2010-13, the head of the OMB, Peter Orszag, predicts that the U.S. economy will grow at a 4 percent annual pace, when the blue chip-economic forecast is closer to 2.7 percent. Of the 51 blue chip-economic forecasters, the OMB's forecast is more optimistic than all but two.

Liberals used to lampoon Ronald Reagan's budgets--sometimes with merit--for relying on a "rosy economic scenario," but even the Gipper's sunny optimism never led to economic predictions that departed so radically from independent forecasts. It turns out that about 75 percent of the celebrated halving of the deficit that Obama claims in his budget is purely a result of an irrationally exuberant economic model that almost no one believes is very likely. The Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee recalculated the OMB budget deficit assuming the average blue chip-economic forecast. It found that the Obama deficit will be $2.2 trillion higher over ten years.

Next is the hard-to-swallow assumption in the budget that all of the new spending in the $800 billion democratic "stimulus" bill that Obama signed in February will expire after 2011. "We are supposed to believe," says Paul Ryan, the ranking House Republican on the Budget Committee, that "Nancy Pelosi, Charlie Rangel, Henry Waxman, and Ted Kennedy are going to allow spending for programs ranging from education for disabled kids, to Pell Grants, to Head Start, to child nutrition programs to fall off a cliff two years from now." Not likely. When Ryan asked the Congressional Budget Office what happens if the spending for about two dozen of the most politically popular programs is continued, not cancelled, the CBO reported back that the deficit and federal outlays would be $3.27 trillion higher over the next ten years.