Budget details less important than overall vision

Posted: Mar 02, 2001 12:00 AM
Gjkjjksyh79&*%^*g. Whoops, sorry about that. My forehead hit the keyboard while I was reading President Bush's proposed budget, and I passed out from boredom. Actually, I'm kidding, I wasn't reading the budget. I was just thinking about it, which was enough to make me face-plant. Truth be told, almost nobody reads the (ital) whole (end ital) budget. I mean, have you ever seen one? It makes the Manhattan phone book look small. Worse, it makes the Manhattan phone book look like action-packed beach reading. Back when I was a think-tank-dwelling policy urchin, I wasted hundreds of hours looking at strange budget tables and spending charts brimming with numbers that had only the vaguest correspondence to reality. I came to one inescapable conclusion: Nobody has any idea what's really going on. More to the point, it's impossible to know what's going on. Of course, I wasn't the first one to discover this. David Stockman, Ronald Reagan's first budget director, admitted in 1981 that, "None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers." The budget is, at best, a plan taken from a bunch of sketches of a constantly moving economic scene. And economic forecasting is even more complex than budgeting is. This is the great paradox of federal budget debates. Unlike almost every other sphere of human activity, the more inexact you are, the more accurate you are likely to be. It's pointillism. As you might remember from that class where you were doodling World War II air battles in your notebook rather than listening, pointillism is the school of painting where tiny dots are arranged so that only by stepping away from the canvas can you see the big picture. President Bush seems to understand this. "An artist using statistics as a brush could paint two very different pictures of our country," he said in his address to Congress Tuesday. "One would have warning signs: increasing layoffs, rising energy prices ... persistent poverty. ... Another picture would be full of blessings: a balanced budget, big surpluses, a military that is second to none, a country at peace with its neighbors, technology that is revolutionizing the world." Bush is being simplistic. Of course you (ital) could (end ital) paint two very different pictures of the economy, but not (ital) just (end ital) two pictures. In reality, you could paint a (ital) million (end ital) economic or budgetary pictures and make a billion predictions about what might happen over the next decade just by rearranging the dots. The trick is that at some point you have to make your best guess and try to impose some meaning on the canvas by defining your vision, in other words, by leading the country rather than surfing the tide. So President Bush wants a $1.6 trillion tax cut over 10 years. Sounds good to me - but I confess: I think all tax cuts sound good. Bush said, "I didn't throw darts at a board to come up with a number for tax relief. I didn't take a poll, or develop an arbitrary formula that might sound good. I looked at problems in the tax code and calculated the cost to fix them." That's silly. Bush has stuck to this 1.6 number since the GOP primaries, and even Alan Greenspan is shocked by the suddenness of the economic changes since then. Nonetheless, you shouldn't be paralyzed by the lack of perfect information. Bush had to pick a big number for a big tax cut, and this one was as good as any. Whatever number he picked, opponents would have said it was too big, so why not stay consistent? What's at issue is the principle. Is America, which is carrying the heaviest peacetime tax burden and the biggest surpluses in history, overtaxed? One side says no, the other says yes. One side says government should pay off even more debt and do more stuff. The other says pay off a bit less debt and fund a few fewer programs. Bush's far-from-perfect budget proposes a massive $2 trillion in debt relief, 38 new spending initiatives or programs and saves about a trillion dollars for the "unexpected." That leaves $1.6 trillion in surplus cash. If that money stays in Washington, Congress will be spend it like it always does with money lying around (that's why discretionary spending rose 8 percent last year). If it goes back to the taxpayers, it will be spent, too. So the question is who should spend it, them or us? Anything else is just details.