Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 4, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

RUNAWAY SPENDING....Paul Krugman writes about the "myth of runaway federal spending under the Bush administration":

But where did that increase come from? Three words: defense, Medicare, Medicaid. That's the whole story....Behind these increases are the obvious things: the war McCain wants to fight for the next century, the general issue of excess cost growth in health care, and the prescription drug benefit.

So the next time Mr. McCain or anyone else promises to rein in runaway spending, they should be asked which of these things they intend to reverse. Are they talking about pulling out of Iraq? Denying seniors the latest medical treatments? Canceling the drug benefit? If not, what are they talking about?

For what it's worth, that's not quite the whole story. Domestic discretionary spending really has increased considerably under Bush. If my arithmetic is right, it increased about 6% under Bill Clinton (adjusted for inflation and population growth) and 16% so far under George Bush. That's nothing to sneeze at.

Still, Krugman is right: the absolute size of domestic discretionary spending is tiny compared to the big ticket items, and this means that it should be a good campaign tactic to demand that Mr. Fiscal Responsibility tell us what he wants to slice out of the budget to pay for the tax cuts he now favors. And yet, that never works, does it? I mean, it never works. Candidates universally blow smoke when the question is asked, reporters universally decline to insist on an answer, and voters universally shrug their shoulders. Weird, isn't it? But still true.

Kevin Drum 1:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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16% so far under George Bush. That's nothing to sneeze at.

I'm sure this is adjusted for inflation?

Posted by: Boronx on February 4, 2008 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, why don't you update this post with a table with four rows: Domestic discretionary spending, defense, Medicare, Medicaid. And the columns: Spending in 2008 dollars in 1992, 2000, and 2008.

Posted by: Joel Rubinstein on February 4, 2008 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, this is just another example of Krugman going over the cliff just like his anti-Obama jihad he's waging. Since you're willing to admit Krugman is biased and untrustworthy in his raving left-wing economic jihad against Obama, why are so willing to trust him now?

As for demanding Republicans tell us what "slice out of the budget to pay for the tax cuts he now favors", this is an unfair demand and nothing more than political hardball. People should understand the difference between rhetoric and substance. Obama understands this and this is why liberals support him even though he attacks Hillary's socialistic universal health care plan. They know he's just saying this to play to centrists and moderates and he would govern differently if elected. Similarly, conservatives like McCain are saying they would cut taxes to play to anti-tax voters and would not necessarily govern like this if elected. It is unfair and hypocritical of you to apply one standard for Republicans but another standard for Obama.

Posted by: Al on February 4, 2008 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

Candidates universally blow smoke when the question is asked, reporters universally decline to insist on an answer, and voters universally shrug their shoulders. Weird, isn't it?

Only one of those three things is weird: the fact that reporters universally decline to insist on an answer. Given that fact, it's only natural that candidates blow smoke (what's the downside?), and given THAT fact, it's only natural for voters to shrug their shoulders. If nobody's given them any useful information, what else can they do?

Posted by: OhioBoy on February 4, 2008 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

it's the same no matter if the race is for city council or the white house. candidates claim there are million or billions just sitting there waiting to be cut and the good citizens won't feel a thing. not a bit of pain. of course it's not true but a certain percentage of voters always lap it up. specifics are for schmucks.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on February 4, 2008 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

OhioBoy's right. If the media, in their strange dissociated way, were to decide that this were a Serious Issue, they could present it simply (a la Joel's suggestion), and they could make it something people talked about.

They can do it with Hillary tearing up. They could do it with, oh, Vince Foster. They certainly could do it with How Your Government Spends Your Taxes. But they don't.

I guess numbers are boring, or something.

Posted by: bleh on February 4, 2008 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

The journalists covering the campaign and asking questions of the candidates cover campaigns for a living. That's part of our problem.

As the campaign season has gotten longer, campaign reporting has become an increasingly specialized kind of journalism. Campaign journalists write about different things; they have different sources. They generally know no more (and sometimes less) about what government actually does than most of their readers, and many of them don't think what government does is particularly important to their job, unless it directly impacts the campaign they happen to be covering.

On one level this is a big advantage for both Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama, whose spin as to their achievements in public office gets repeated by campaign journalists more or less verbatim. It's a disadvantage to a more substantive legislator like Sen. McCain (as it was earlier, in a big way, to Sens. Biden and Dodd, legislators with much greater records of actual accomplishment than the candidates still in the race on the Democratic side). It's an advantage to Gov. Romney -- really, to any governor, because national campaign reporters are even less inclined to investigate state political issues in any depth than they are to parse the federal budget.

Of course, the disadvantage to Sen. McCain is offset somewhat by the fact to which Kevin alludes, that campaign journalists regard talk about specific government programs and how to pay for them as boring compared to endorsements and fundraising and personal stories. But every candidate benefits from this -- if you doubt it, just listen to the rapturous lectures about new technologies and "green-collar jobs" Obama and Clinton get into whenever they are asked about energy imports or climate change. It's pretty obvious that we won't be able to do much about either without increasing the price Americans pay for energy, but when this question is asked, reporters universally decline to insist on an answer, and voters universally shrug their shoulders. Weird, isn't it? But still true.

Posted by: Zathras on February 4, 2008 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

Clinton took huge deficits and turned them into huge surpluses. Vice versa for Bush. Relative increases are secondary.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on February 4, 2008 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

You left wingers just refuse to face the reality -- this is not a problem. The key to covering our runaway spending is cutting taxes, which increases revenues and allows us to pay for additional spending. Open your eyes! Your hatred of Bush blinds you to the simple economic truth.

Posted by: skeptic on February 4, 2008 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

Democratic candidates should tell the press that they'll answer the "how will you pay for it" question *only* after they've matched the modern Republican track record, ie. 20 years of deficits and $8,000,000,000,000 of debt. In other words, call back in 2028. Til then f*ck off. You're part of the problem.

my 2 cents

Posted by: dennisS on February 4, 2008 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

PS. My previous comment was not aimed at PK or Kevin. They are gods.

Posted by: dennisS on February 4, 2008 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

I think I have it figured out - when Republicans say they will "cut the budget" what they mean is "cut the taxes from the budget."

It is our fault for assuming they mean cutting the spending.

Posted by: Tripp on February 4, 2008 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK


I've never heard McCain call military spending pork. It's usually a 20k study on salmon mating or something similar. "Why does the government have to help fish get their rocks off?" My best advice for Obama is to prepare an eloquent answer for that one.

Posted by: B on February 4, 2008 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

A hundred years from now, historians will be debating why the United States spent trillions of dollars and weakened their strategic position in the world, because 19 religious fanatics hijacked some airplanes using boxcutters you can buy for $1.98 at WalMart. There has never been such gross overreaction and foolish squandering of resources in the history of humankind. Why the American people allowed this to occur is a related, corollary question.

Democrats should remind the American people every day how this criminal, George W. Bush, has looted the U.S. Treasury to give unnecessary tax cuts to wealthy people who did not need them and in most cases, did not want them. His gross fiscal mismanagement has left a mountain of debt that our great-grandchildren will be paying off!

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on February 4, 2008 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

1. With Universal healthcare Medicaid goes away and a huge chunk of Medicare also goes away.In place of that is OUR MONEY that WE the people want to pay for health care, now what Republican could be against us paying for our own healthcare.These Big Goverment handouts to Corporation seems to be alright for all Republicans.

Posted by: john john on February 4, 2008 at 2:16 PM | PERMALINK

Why the American people allowed this to occur is a related, corollary question.

People were angry and wanted to kick somebody's butt, and Bush directed that anger towards Iraq.

It's as simple as that.

Posted by: Tripp on February 4, 2008 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

It's the stupid economy.

Posted by: Kenji on February 4, 2008 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

For a lot of people, the military is considered a real career path. They get in with just a high school diploma. They get a five-figure signing bonus. Sure, the pay's not good, but when you include the room and board and medical benefits, it's better than they can get on the outside. They get another bonus every time they re-enlist. After twenty years, they are qualified for a pension and lifetime medical. Then, in their late thirties they get another job, often in government (the police, for example), and work on qualifying for another government pension. Many of these folks are also opposed to "socialism."

Posted by: Jose Padilla on February 4, 2008 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

What has happened recently -especially under Rumsfeld was that military budgets went up, but the overall size of the serives went down. That was why we didn't have enough soldiers to perform a proper occupation (this doesn't the invasion/occupation was a correct or moral policy). The current servicemen are paying a high price, combat rotation by combat rotation, while the military industrial security corporations benefit. A reasonable reform of the military would have as its goal more boots, and less fancy high tech. I would think this could be sold to Jow Sixpack.

Posted by: bigTom on February 4, 2008 at 3:12 PM | PERMALINK

Another great post, but just a question from a long-time reader...could you start adding tags to your post? It would be great if I could easily find all your post about Krugman, so I could read up on that one subject. Just brainstorming.

Posted by: Dan Trubman on February 4, 2008 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Who can pay attention to elections and budgets and wars and things of this nature when ABC is showing a special on Natalee Holloway tonight?

Posted by: AJ on February 4, 2008 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, now Krugman is to be trusted. Is he only trustworthy when he agrees with you already?

Posted by: Steve on February 4, 2008 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

i caught one of NPR's political reporters pushing Romney on this two weeks ago- he asked how Romney would pay for tax cuts, Romney said he'd cut spending, reporter asked if there were any programs, and Romney curtly insisted that he could restrain spending growth, which was like cutting spending. reporter let it go, but i'd love to see a good piece on whether or not starving all programs a little bit is a good idea. that might help move that stupid political dodge out of the discourse. know any good political magazines that would cover that kind of thing?

Posted by: jim on February 4, 2008 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

Only one of those three things is weird: the fact that reporters universally decline to insist on an answer.

I feel like if I'm campaigning against Mr Straight Talk, I would make this point over and over in any debates and interviews. Get this notion out there, over the heads of the people who control what gets heard, and embarrass these "reporters" into doing some reporting.

Posted by: craigie on February 4, 2008 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

Around these parts the candidates are always going on about cutting fat, waste, and overhead.

You'd think the budget was 50% waste to hear them talk.

For some reason, though, after they are elected the fat, waste and overhead all seem to disappear.

Posted by: Tripp on February 4, 2008 at 3:56 PM | PERMALINK

We've been beating the "reduce spending" drum for more than twenty years now. Consequently, there are two types of spending in most governments: essential spending that will get you politically killed from the electorate if you cut it, and nonessential spending protected by 800-pound-gorilla political interests who will politically kill you if you cut it.

If someone wants to announce that they are going to cut spending to make everything OK, please tell you whose ox you're planning on goring. Thanks.

Posted by: ericblair on February 4, 2008 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

As they say, democracy works until the people figure out they can vote themselves money.

Posted by: Luther on February 4, 2008 at 5:06 PM | PERMALINK


Not running down the military. My brother's career Army, my brother-in-law is in the Reserves and my father-in-law (deceased) was career Army. The question was, Why aren't more people opposed to military spending since it seems (is) very wasteful? Fact is, for a lot of families the military is a viable carer path and they wouldn't want that messed with.

Posted by: Jose Padilla on February 4, 2008 at 5:45 PM | PERMALINK

Jose, I think you make a good point. Politically, the military is the Republicans' version of a jobs program. And no, that's not me running down the military. It's me running down the Republicans.

Posted by: The Fabulous Mr. Toad on February 4, 2008 at 7:32 PM | PERMALINK

Things to cut:

The Prescription Drug Act.
All pork barrel spending.
The Department of Education.
The Department of Energy.
The Department of Agriculture.
The Department of Homeland Security.
The Iraq War (pullout of it).
Our military presence in Europe and East Asia.

There, that should more than balance the budget.

Posted by: 19thcenturyliberal on February 4, 2008 at 7:44 PM | PERMALINK

This "where will the money come from?" meme is ridiculous. The national budget, in real terms, has increased from 2bn in 1996 to 3bn in 2008. That's not in nominal dollars. How did we manage to get by only 12 years ago? Were Seniors starving in the streets?

The entire non-military, "actually buy things" part of the budget is something like 390bn, or less than 3% of GDP. Another 50bn is Veteran's Benefits, which we're clearly obligated to provide. After that? It's fair game.

Almost 300bn goes to debt interest, which we wouldn't have to pay if earlier generations hadn't shafted us with the bill. We could pay this off within a generation, as many other countries have done.

Various forms of redistribution are, incredibly, 1.5 trn, or half the budget; I'm just counting SocSec, Medicare, Medicaid, and Dept. of Labor outlays like unemployment and welfare. I'm more than glad to means test a lot of this, phased out slowly alongside payroll taxes. Let's say we cut half of this with means testing, sometime over the next 20 years. (Mind you, there's a ton more redistributive spending in the budget - Dept. of Housing, etc. - that I don't count here. It was in the 3% figure above)

The military sucked up almost 800bn next year. I'm fine with a military only four times as strong as China's, so let's spend 200bn on it, and use much of this money to train a true National Guard (i.e., civilians trained to defend the homeland) rather than a backup foreign war fighting base. This change could also come over 20 years.

I agree with 19thcenturyliberal that there's a lot that can be cut out of the 3%, though; much of the work of the DoE, the federal bank regulators, DHS, etc. just replicates what's done in another agency or at the state and local level. We have 17 intelligence agencies and four federal bank regulators, for chrissakes! But let's be conservative and only cut 10% from this "actual spending".

These aren't "crazy changes", but we just knocked the Federal budget down to 1.3 trn, and now we have enough for a balanced budget, an end to payroll taxes, and income taxes that are cut in half.

Hey, I can dream...

Posted by: cure on February 4, 2008 at 8:16 PM | PERMALINK

Of course, kevin, your and Krugman's preferred health care reforms will inevitably increase health care rationing for middle class retirees. When are you guys planning to frankly acknowledge that? To head off the typical sound and fury, let me note that I pretty much favor anything which decreases the rate of transfer of wealth from young poor people to middle class and wealthy old people, so there are elements of Kevin's preferred reforms that I favor as well.

Posted by: Will Allen on February 4, 2008 at 9:17 PM | PERMALINK

"Of course, kevin, your and Krugman's preferred health care reforms will inevitably increase health care rationing for middle class retirees"

You mean like Medicare already does? Oh, and Will ... your case would be far more persuasive if you'd actually provide some real data.

Posted by: PaulB on February 4, 2008 at 9:21 PM | PERMALINK

Come on, wishful thinking is the hallmark of conservatarianism.

Posted by: craigie on February 4, 2008 at 10:16 PM | PERMALINK

"Candidates universally blow smoke when the question is asked, reporters universally decline to insist on an answer, and voters universally shrug their shoulders. Weird, isn't it?"

One of the reasons it happens is because people have no idea where the money goes. Have you ever seen a Federal budget? They are ugly. If I were someone like Michael Bloomberg, I'd commission an Annual Report of The United States, a user-friendly version of the budget that people can really understand. I think it could make a real difference in how people think about the government.

Posted by: amorphous on February 4, 2008 at 11:03 PM | PERMALINK

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."
--Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953

Posted by: Quotation Man on February 4, 2008 at 11:16 PM | PERMALINK

And so we see Will "Racism is my middle name, ask me about murdering Iraqis in the name of 'stability' in the Middle East" Allen is back pretending that we don't already have plenty of rationing under our current healthcare system.

Will, you are an asshole who consistently whines about how there will someday be rationing as if there isn't already plenty and whose solution, oh yeah, PaulB has already pointed out you don't have any fucking solutions.

Here's the deal, you dimwitted waster of other people's lives, healthcare is already doled out by faceless drones whose entire income is derived from preventing other people from getting the care they need. The current health insurance system is a scam and a drain on the system. A rational system would ration based on need, not on ability to pay. Will there be some pressure to provide useless care for the elderly? Sure, but it is your President (the guy you loved enough to vote for even after his disastrous inflammation of the Middle East) who, along with the party he leads, gave us the big ass useless drug company benefit. It looks a lot like we don't need advice from people like you who give their votes to wastrels like Bush.

Will "Tribesman of Slaughter" Allen and idiot voters like him have wasted trillions of dollars "defending" our nation. That's because these useless racist fucks would much rather kill foreigners than save Americans.

Posted by: noel on February 5, 2008 at 2:08 AM | PERMALINK

I'm with noel. In what way are health services, or anything else, not "rationed"? To engage in one of my least favorite right-wing rhetorical techniques, I say it goes back to econ 101 and the "problem of scarcity".

Posted by: thompsaj on February 5, 2008 at 5:16 AM | PERMALINK

The size of the military budget went up while the size of military personnel went down. It was Rumsfeld's vision of using technology for future wars instead of supplying boots on the ground. It was a biiiiig mistake and our boys are paying for it everyday. However, maybe there was a reason I'm not privvy to, but I can't think of one when no other nation on the planet could come close to matching our military capabilities.

Posted by: drosz on February 5, 2008 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

Of course health care is rationed, however middle class and wealthy retirees face less rationing than just about anyone except the mega-wealthy, and they certainly have less rationing here than middle class and wealthy retirees do anywhere else, including the health care delivery systems kevin prefers. There is no better place on earth to be a 75 year old non-poor fat diabetic with a heart condition and an arthritic hip than the the U.S., and if the reforms Kevin favors come to pass, that will change, and it some respects I welcome it as well. The proper role of young poor people is not to transfer wealth to wealthy and middle class old people.

Posted by: Will Allen on February 5, 2008 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK



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