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Roads to Nowhere

Discussion of the House Republican budget has focused mostly on the privatization of Medicare, the block-granting of Medicaid, and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And that’s appropriate, given the magnitude of the changes and widespread impact they would have. But those proposals are obscuring some other proposed shifts that, in any other context, would be plenty troubling for their own sake. This week I'll highlight five of them. So far, I've written about radical changes to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), changes in the eligibility age for Medicare, and a crucial weakening of financial reform. Today I look at how cuts in non-entitlement spending will affect infrastructure and other public goods.

The Republican budget’s proposed cuts to the federal government’s health care programs are dramatic. But you know what’s even more dramatic? The cuts to just about everything else. 

The Republican budget’s goal is not merely to reduce the deficit. It’s also to reduce government spending. According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, the Republican budget would reduce the size of government to 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2015 and to less than 15 percent by 2020. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, that would be the lowest level since 1951. 

Here’s where you need to stop and think about the math. The government looked a little different back in the early 1950s. Medicare and Medicaid did not exist. Social Security was less generous. So if you want to shrink the government to what it was then and maintain those programs, even in significantly diminished form, there’s going to be less room in the budget for everything else. Sure enough, according to the CBO, the fraction of GDP that goes to spending outside of those three big entitlement programs would fall “from 12 percent [of GDP] in 2010 to 6 percent in 2022 and 3 1/2 percent by 2050 ... spending in this category has exceeded 8 percent of GDP in every year since World War II.”

Throw in the fact that the Republican budget would not call for massive reductions in defense spending, and you end up with the Center on Budget’s conclusion: Most of the rest of the government would “cease to exist.” 

Another way to think about this is in programmatic terms--and what that would mean neglecting. It’d mean massive cuts to all sorts of means-tested programs upon which the poor, in particular, rely. But it’d also mean substantial cuts to investments in public goods, like education and infrastructure. According to Adam Hersh and Sarah Ayres of the Center for American Progress, the end result of the Republican budget would be a 53 percent reduction in per capita spending on education and training, a 28 percent reduction in scientifically oriented research and development, and a 37 percent reduction in transportation infrastructure.

Even if you buy the conservative argument that the reduced tax burden of the Republican budget will boost growth, it’s hard to ignore the neglect that would result. Numerous reports, for example, have warned about the country’s crumbling transportation infrastructure. 

The graph below illustrates just how deep the Republican budget would cut transportation spending, based on Hersh and Ayres's analysis. I can't vouch for the arithmetic. But, given what I know about the Republican budget as a whole, their conclusions hardly seem far-fetched.

Update: Matthew Yglesias points to new Economist story comparing commute times across nations and linking the laggard U.S. performance to poor infrastructure here.