Jonathan Chait

Rick Perry's Temporary Budget Sanity

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The normal way to measure changes in the scope of taxes or spending is to account for changes in the size of population and the value of the currency. If the government creates a program to, say, give free lunches to poor schoolchildren, then that program will expend more dollars over time as things get more expensive and the number of schoolchildren increases. When conservatives tabulate the size of government, they frequently use alternate methods, such as ignoring the changing size of the population, ignoring inflation, or both. This method, while statistically dubious and scorned by any serious economist, has the advantage of always making taxes and spending appear to be growing wildly out of control -- even the same program doing the same thing year after year will appear, by conservative budget-math, to be exploding in cost.

Republican politicians, and the most hackish Republican pundits, tend to reside almost exclusively in the funhouse world of conservative budget-math. Every so often, though, Republicans can be drawn out of that world and into the world of into real budget math. Usually this happens when a Republican governor runs for president. Governors have to, you know, govern. They can't draw up their policies as if phenomena like inflation and population growth were mere excuses dreamed up by pointy-headed liberals.

A week ago, Michelle Bachmann charged that Rick Perry doubled spending in Texas as governor. Perry replied, via the stenography of Jennifer Rubin:

FALSE CLAIM: “Rick Perry doubled spending in a decade.”

TRUTH: State spending – the non-federal dollars state lawmakers can control – is six percent lower under Gov. Perry than it was under the two-year budget in effect when he took office, adjusting for population growth and inflation.

This is correct. Perry is using real budget math. Here is Rick Perry, in his book, assailing Obama via conservative budget-math:

“…since 2008, the Democrat-controlled Congress has added an astonishing $4.6 trillion to the public debt, including $1.6 trillion in 2010 alone […] The Pelosi-Reid Congresses have increased spending as a share of the GDP from 20.7 percent in FY 2008 to 25.4 percent in FY 2010 […] Between FY 2007 (the last Republican budget) and FY 2011 Congress has increased spending by a total of $1.105 trillion”...

“This year alone, the federal government will spend a staggering $3.7 trillion, an increase in annual spending of more than $1.4 trillion since just one decade ago” ...

By far the most alarming problem we face with respect to the largesse of the federal government is the very real crisis of the looming implosion of New Deal and Great Society entitlement programs. Consider that federal expenditures for 2010 include more than $721 billion for Social Security, $457 billion for Medicare, and $284 billion for Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Programup 38 percent, 81 percent, and 87 percent, respectively, since a decade ago.”

Of course, if you use real budget math -- the kind of accounting Perry uses to describe his own record in Texas -- then Obama's record looks quite different. There has been no increase in non-entitlement domestic spending at all:

Now, the cost of mandatory programs has risen, but that reflects both the rise of health care costs, which makes covering health care for seniors increasingly expensive -- and the Republican-passed prescription drug benefit. Meanwhile, adjusted for inflation and population growth, the White House plans a huge cut in domestic spending over the next decade (see page 29.) I don't think these low spending levels will or should hold, but keep in mind that "mandating unrealistically low levels of future non-entitlement spending" is a scam that Republicans like Paul Ryan engage in even more shamelessly than Obama.

The interesting thing here is that Perry, if nominated, will be reverting almost exclusively back to conservative budget-math. I'm hoping somebody remembers these early moments in the primary when he briefly acknowledged real budget math.

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