Chart of the Day

Everybody’s posting this chart from Ezra Klein today. I don’t want to be left out:

Budget graphinsurance.png

The title of the post is great, too: “The U.S. Government: An insurance conglomerate protected by a large, standing army.” The key point is that we’re trying to deal with our entire budgetary problem out of that blue 12.3% part.  That’s nuts, anyways you look at it.  Here’s the crux of Ezra’s smart argument on the matter:

Either way, it’s time to admit that there’s little in the budget that’s truly unpopular. If it was unpopular, it either wouldn’t be there in the first place, or it would’ve been zeroed out when politicians went hunting for offsets to pay for programs that interested them more. Anything that’s survived Congress’s occasional spasms of fiscal responsibility and constant hunger for easy money has some sort of a constituency behind it.

And though cutting non-defense discretionary spending might buy us some time on the deficit, we’re eventually going to have to do as legendary robber Willie Sutton did when he started hitting banks: We’ll have to go where the money is. That means our social insurance programs, and our military. Of this group, Social Security is in the best shape, and is by far the most efficient. It should be last on our list. Not, as it often seems to be, first.

The military remains largely untouched — and that is true in the budgets released by both the Republicans and the Democrats. This is one case where politicians are lagging behind the public: In the Pew poll, military spending was the third-least popular category of spending, even though in Washington, it’s frequently considered politically unassailable. But perhaps we’ll see more action on this soon: A bipartisan group of legislators including Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Ron Paul (R-Tex.) created the Sustainable Defense Task Force to look at ways to reduce our military spending, and the plan they developed could save us a trillion dollars over the next 10 years.

That said, it’s Medicare and Medicaid that pose the largest long-term threat to the budget. They’re big — about 20 percent of the budget right now — but the real problem is the speed with which they’re getting bigger. Left unchecked, they’re projected to double in size over the next 30 years. The health-reform law makes a start on curbing their growth, namely through experiments that encourage paying for quality rather than volume and the creation of an independent board able to imposecost-controlling reforms without getting tied up in Congress. But it’s just a start, and it’s under constant threat of being undone or rolled back. The reality is we need to go further and faster. We’re an insurance company now, and we can’t continue to dither when it comes to righting our core business.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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