Some weeks back, I heard the authors of Where Does the Money Go? — Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson — give an interview on Fresh Air that I really wish I could have finished listening to (work gets in the way sometimes). They were riveting, engaging and remarkably clear in discussing and answering questions re: the current critical state of Federal budget. After reading this book, I wish I could make this mandatory reading in this election year. For every voter, no matter your party affiliation. It really is that compelling and informative; and even better, it is a very balanced view.
The authors edit the Public Agenda website, a non-partisan research and civic engagement organization. They note up front that the country spends more than it takes in on a much too too routine basis; they would see this book as both a warning and a call to action: “today’s problems will seem like a fender bender compared to the economic train wreck the country will face if we don’t get the nation’s finances under control.” They provide no comprehensive solution of their own, but do take a good look at some of the favorite proposed solutions to the problem. For instance, cutting out foreign aid, cultural programs, technology programs (including space) and the remaining welfare programs currently represent about 4% of the budget. Real money for sure, but in impact is like digging up change from your sofa to buy your house.
Here’s how they define the broad problem: “Unless something changes, we could see a time (around 2040, if nothing is done) when nearly every tax dollar collected will be needed to pay for retirement and health care for the elderly and interest on the debt.” The authors, then, proceed to provide a very clear look at the entire magnitude and scope of the Federal budget; then examine a number of the solutions (both for increasing revenues and for eliminating or reducing programs) most often proposed by the politicians or think tank denizens as an eye-opening reality check of how far that solution goes to reducing either budget or deficits. Their examination is focused on how well the proposed solution goes to resolving the specific deficit issue and a quick assessment of the political difficulty (as in will taxpayers support this) of the proposed solution.
The book is a relatively short read — there are plenty of charts and interesting visuals to help conceptualize the data and issues that they are reviewing. They meticulously source their information and discuss data handling methodology (where needed) completely enabling the reader to go off to dig for more detail (or to verify sources). Importantly (at least for me), Bittle and Johnson made the choice here to preference data and analyses on budgets and budget policy that comes (mostly) directly from the government. Using data from the government takes off of the table the critique that whatever think tank providing the data has a bias to communicate and forces the reader to just deal with the implications of this data.
One of the really interesting features of this book is a chapter towards the end that provides the 2006 budget summary — major line items, budget appropriated, pros and cons of changing this item and an empty column. That empty column is for you to start working with the numbers yourself — if you’ve been advocating the government get rid of X program and all will be right with the world, you now get a chance to try out your theory. This budget presentation (allowing you to work with the numbers yourself) will test the limits to all the fiscal ideologies out there and force them back to basic accounting principles. It would have been very cool to get this chapter as a real spreadsheet in a collaborative working space on the web so people could share their thinking.
Bittle and Johnson really are to be commended for this book. They’ve created a darn near mandatory resource for a voter of any party (and it is going to be hard for most folks to find partisan ax grinding of any type going on here); and done it with clarity, wit, a little irreverence and some real hope that the crisis can be averted or fixed. They seem to think that there are solutions to be had, but are clear that the best impetus for those solutions is an informed citizenry asking its political class to stop fiddling and help us get to the very hard choices that are in store to fix it all.
If you are currently bored with the campaigns, this is a great book to get up to speed on both the Federal budget and the potential utility of the usual fixes before the summer campaigns (loaded with all of their promises) get into full gear.