Book Review — Where Does The Money Go?

Filed in Uncategorized by on April 20, 2008

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.

Where Does the Money Go?

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.

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  1. liberalgeek says:

    Awesome review. I will be adding it to my summer (maybe spring) reading list. I do feel like everyone is nipping at the edges of the issue but is scared away by the third rails (cut entitlements for liberals, raise taxes for conservatives) that are vital to whatever solutions we devise.

  2. Shirley says:

    Thanks for the review ! I have an Amazon gift certificate still sitting in my inbox from Christmas…this looks like a good use for it.

  3. William R says:

    Got to learn how to read first, geeky. Is that why you’re waiting ’til summer?

  4. liberalgeek says:

    Yes, Bill, that’s why. BTW, you are reaching with this one. At least be funny like G Rex, or stupid like Rob Foraker.

    You are entering a battle of wits, unarmed.

  5. William R says:

    Quite the marksman, geeky. I don’t do battle with socialists.

  6. liberalgeek says:

    I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for socialists then. In the meantime, I am deleting your redundant comments. Think of it as me shutting your pie-hole.

  7. Not Truth Teller says:

    Hard to keep up with.

  8. Not Truth Teller says:

    I wish I had discovered this site earlier. Didn’t realize they require IQs under 75 ( and I sense your comeback already – don’t even try).

  9. Rob Foraker says:

    Yes, Bill, that’s why. BTW, you are reaching with this one. At least be funny like G Rex, or stupid like Rob Foraker.

    “You are entering a battle of wits, unarmed.”
    I might sound stupid to you but I’m still smarter than you…

  10. liberalgeek says:

    Rob, you are stupid, and I would meet you in any intellectual battlefield at any time. Piss off.

  11. daaaaaaaaaaaammmmmmmmmnnnnnnnnnn

  12. Rob Foraker says:

    Name the public place….stupid

  13. Rob Foraker says:

    This would have to be publically aired…of course?

  14. liberalgeek says:

    We could do a youtube video of the whole thing. First question: What’s the best way to get Senator Obama to stop asking you for money? (hint: it ain’t by doing a webcam video appealing to Senator Obama to please stop asking…)

  15. fight
    fight
    fight
    fight

    wooohooooo

  16. Rob Foraker says:

    Neither Senator Obama or any political party STOPS asking for money.

  17. anon says:

    I am afraid Geek cannot win this one, being armed only with logic, knowledge, and rational thought.

  18. Rob Foraker says:

    Liberal….You cannot win a battle of Wit…

  19. i say a WII boxing match!

    kick his ass seabass!

  20. nemski says:

    There is a fight on DL and its not between Jason and Burris or Cassandra and Nancy?

  21. liberalgeek says:

    As an FYI, ‘wit’ isn’t capitalized unless it begins a sentence.

    Any idea why you might have restarted a comment thread that had been dead for 8 months? Just get a new prescription?

  22. Rob Foraker says:

    What have you’ve done to positively effect Delaware?

  23. anon says:

    Rob Foraker is a gift to the blog world… he should be handled with humor (in both senses of the word). Take him seriously and you lose.

  24. Rob Foraker says:

    As an FYI, ‘wit’ isn’t capitalized unless it begins a sentence.

    Any idea why you might have restarted a comment thread that had been dead for 8 months? Just get a new prescription
    I DIDN’T START IT AGAIN ….YOU DID Who’s being stumped?

  25. Rob Foraker says:

    Again Lib,What have you’ve done to positively effect Delaware?

  26. liberalgeek says:

    Ummm…

    liberalgeek // Apr 21, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Rob Foraker // Dec 29, 2008 at 10:26 am

    As for my list of accomplishments, they are numerous. Incidentally, they do not include the installation of webcams throughout Newark.

  27. Rob Foraker says:

    Glad to see positive things for Delaware…I had this recently done for public safety..I was a victim of robbery in Bear .Resolution 08-220 which was sponsored by Councilman Smiley and approved by County Council on December 9th. This resolution urges homeowners in New Castle County to clearly display their property addresses on their homes so that the number is clearly visible during day and evening hours. In addition, New Castle County has placed information regarding this resolution on our cable news channel, Channel 22

  28. RSmitty says:

    Big Brotherism is hardly anything positive. If you get off watching me or other people with web cams installed around the area, that is creepy with a capital ‘C,’ let alone is it even legal, if you did it without government sponsorship?

  29. RSmitty says:

    Train of thought:
    As an FYI, ‘wit’ isn’t capitalized unless it begins a sentence.

    I DIDN’T START IT AGAIN ….YOU DID Who’s being stumped?

    Neither are all of those letters, except for “I.” Given that your forgot a period after “DID,” your capitalization of “W” becomes inaccurate.

    Hey, you want to be the grammar police, you, too, will be policed; however, that apparently fits into your big brother world.

  30. Rob Foraker says:

    Smitty…You’re the Grammar police??

  31. Rob Foraker says:

    If you get off watching me or other people with web cams installed around the area, that is creepy with a capital ‘C,’ let alone is it even legal, if you did it without government sponsorship? I’m not watching you I’m in Wilmington….been there lately??

  32. RSmitty says:

    I’m the boogey man…I’m everywhere.

    BOO!

  33. pandora says:

    I live in the city of Wilmington and I’m getting a little tired of the Wild West portrayal. It’s a CITY – with all the good and bad that goes with that term. Is there more crime? Well, that’s a big duh. There’s also a lot more culture. Why? Because it’s a CITY!

    Hmmm… let’s compare Lancaster to Philadelphia. It makes just as much sense.

  34. Rob Foraker says:

    Pandora, I was referring to the drug trade, I believe Wilminghton is a good city..