What is the meaning of a budget number?

Posted by Don Fullerton on Oct 7, 2011

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy)

With all the argument in Washington about how to balance the budget, a reminder is worthwhile that none of these numbers make any sense at all!  What “should” be the meaning of the government budget?  And, does any number provided by anybody actually have that meaning?

In general, a budget deficit is supposed to mean that one’s current consumption exceeds income, which would indicate a decrease in wealth.  Indeed, that’s the problem with a deficit – drawing down our wealth (which could even turn from positive to negative!).  The U.S. Federal budget numbers fail to provide such a meaning, for several reasons.

First, the Federal budget includes ALL spending, not just consumption.  Some of that spending is actually investment, such as new spending on buildings, bridges, roads, airplanes, and any long-lived military equipment.  The budget does not show the breakdown between what we really use up this year, and what spending is really investing in the future.

Second, Social Security is “off-budget”, unless you are looking at a unified budget.  Okay, I said that in a way that is intentionally confusing!  The basic problem here is that social security is SUPPOSED to run a surplus, so that we can set aside some funds from those now working to pay them when they are retired.  If it does not run a surplus to save for the retirement of the baby boom generation, then we’ll be in big trouble when the baby boom generation retires!  The current social security surplus is too small for that.  Then, however, the big problem is that the unified budget mixes the social security budget with the rest of federal spending.  So when you see a deficit in that account, it’s really worse than it looks, because it includes the small social security SURPLUS that’s already not a big enough surplus for social security to break even!

Third, the U.S. Federal Budget is confusing about what is a “Tax Expenditure” and what is government “Spending”.  A tax expenditure is really ‘spending via tax break’, as when a taxpayer gets a special credit or deduction for doing some particular activity.  The Congress could instead have accomplished the exact same thing by an ACTUAL spending program, providing subsidy to the same set of eligible individuals for doing the exact same activity.  So it really does not make much sense to say you want to cut spending and not raise taxes, because eliminating one of those tax breaks is really the same as eliminating an equivalent spending program.

Fourth, a Federal “mandate” might require a certain kind of spending by a firm.  To take a simple example, suppose some safety regulation requires construction firms to provide a hard hat to all workers.  That’s really equivalent to a tax on that firm, equal to the amount they have to spend on hard hats, where the revenue of that “tax” is spend by government on the provision of hard hats.  But then the problem is that mandates are so pervasive.  Some ‘true’ measure of the size of government would be HUGE, if we counted the dollar cost of all mandates as a “tax”, as if it were in the government budget.

One Response to “What is the meaning of a budget number?”

  • jerry l. carson says:

    so if i follow you dan the earned income tax credit is really an expenditure in the budget. so if a flat tax system did away with the earned income tax credit we would not only increase revenue by broadening the tax base but also to the extent that cash payments were made to tax units that had less tax liabilities than the amount of the full credit there would be a reduction in the federal spending budget. a double impact!!