You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Don't Forget The Rest Of The Budget


Ezra Klein, in his article on the White House fiscal responsibility summit that Jon linked to earlier, posts the above chart and says:

Government spending and Social Security, it says, will hold relatively constant in coming years. It's Medicare and Medicaid that chew up federal spending.

Isn't that second sentence sort of an odd interpretation of this chart? Clearly, the projected growth rate of health care costs is unsustainable, and finding ways to change that ought to be, far and away, the country's top fiscal priority. But it's not as though the chunk of money going to Social Security and "other spending" is simply an afterthought; this is 15 percent of GDP we're talking about. I've never understood the argument that simply because their growth rates are close to zero they shouldn't be part of the conversation. If you thought one part of your household budget were going to expand dramatically, wouldn't you want to look for savings everywhere, rather than betting (probably unrealistically) that you can get the one offending budgetary item entirely under control?

President Obama's laudable decision to move to honest budgetary reporting underscored the basic reality that, gimmicks aside, all federal revenue effectively goes into one big pot, and all federal outlays come out of it. Ultimately, we've got to decide where we want that last marginal dollar of federal spending to go. It's true that Social Security, viewed in isolation, doesn't have a major solvency problem--but why would you view Social Security in isolation? Of course it nominally has its own revenue stream, but the whole point here is that there are tradeoffs: dedicating that money to Social Security (or defense, or infrastructure, or anything else) means there's less to spend in other areas. Those who advocate no changes to Social Security have to do more than point out that there's no funding crisis; they need to make an affirmative case for why sending Social Security checks to future affluent retirees is a better use of that money than funding more expensive-but-livesaving health treatments, or child anti-poverty programs, or keeping future marginal tax rates to manageable levels, or anything else.

To be clear, reforming Social Security shouldn't be near the top of the list of the administration's priorities. Yes, health care costs are a much bigger deal. But that doesn't mean effectively ignoring the sizable expenditures elsewhere in the budget, an idea which seems to be gaining traction in some quarters these days, is wise.

--Josh Patashnik