Good and Bad News on the U.S. Deficit

Warning politics to follow! Politics with questionable data sources!

Recently the New York Times made a very cool web application in which you could select different methods for closing the deficit (which they break down into a short term 2015 and long term 2030 deficit.) I’ve always wanted to make sure a tool because I hate to say it, but most discussions of federal budgets have severe magnitude issues (order of magnitude physics, a great class to take!) Of course one can argue with the numbers and options the New York Times provides (see bottom of application for a list of where this data came from) but it is still an interesting exercise to carry out.

Even more interesting to me is that they allowed people to tweet the budgets they created and then they went out and collected data about these tweets. Here is that data. Of course the readership of the New York Times will not be representative, and this will be further biased by selecting people who tweet, but seeing as how I saw this tool linked to by several more conservative/libertarian blogs as well as by some of my more libertarian facebook friends, I’ll bet the demographic isn’t as bad as one might guess at first glance. One could probably figure out the bias from other surveys about these suggestions.

So, assuming that the demographic isn’t too distorted (big assumption of course, but roll with me on this one) what can one conclude? Well the first thing is the good news. I took the data from the 6898 twitter users and then started going down the line of most popular ideas until the deficit was balanced. This occurred at the 58 percent level (return estate tax to Clinton levels was the one that put it over the top.) So one could say that if this survey is in any way representative (not likely) that there is a path forward that has much more than majority support! The budget produced, by the way, consists of 41 percent tax increases and 59 percent reduction in spending.

Now the bad news. If I took the list and only implemented those for which there was a majority of support from those who were at the extremes of the survey (the Times broke out the people who balanced their budgets using 75 percent tax increase or 75 percent spending cuts) then there was a huge shortfall ($418 billion in 2015, $1345 billion in 2030.) Interestingly also the only such majority supported terms were spending cuts.

Another interesting breakdown is to take the identified taxers and spending cutters and to use the ones that they have a majority favoring and that the overall survey has a majority favoring. If one takes the tax increasing crowd and uses only the options that have an overall majority then one covers the deficit in 2015 (with a slight billion surplus) but fails to cover the long term 2030 deficit (has a $505 billion dollar deficit). If, on the other hand, one takes the tax cutting crowd and only uses their majority supported favorites, one does not close the short term 2015 deficit ($179 billion deficit) nor the long term ($390 billion deficit.) This comes all from spending cuts.

So there are some interesting things here if I close my eyes to the validity of the data. First it’s that there is majority support for addressing the deficit problem. Second, the extremes on both sides are incapable of solving this problem with majority supported proposals. So in short what is holding back deficit reduction is not support from the general public, but the polarizing climate in which reasonable people come together and compromise. Okay my own bias is that this is the main structural problem with the deficit 🙂

(Of course one should note that there are those who do not want to address the deficit today, especially in the short term where the U.S. economy is in uncertain times. There are also (separate) “reasonable” arguments to be made that a small deficit is not at all a bad thing.)

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