February 9, 2004
by P.M. Carpenter
First, there's the Columbia Guide to Standard American English, which defines understatement as an expression that "provides less information than might be warranted." And then there's the Bush administration, which declares this year's $521 billion deficit a "subject of concern."
Just more proof the Bushies are sinking to uncharted linguistic and managerial lows.
A half-trillion-dollar hole in the budget is, of course, a mere "subject of concern" only to the eschatologically inclined. The fallouts of rising interest rates (possible in the next few months), ballooning percentages of federal outlays in interest payments alone and grossly higher taxes incumbent on our children are reasons enough to hope so-called fiscally responsible conservatives begin acting fiscally responsible.
Yet, quite aside from the real and extensive problems inherent in crushing national debt, this administration has added another problematic dimension: No one can, or should, take seriously anything it says about budgets. As with everything else, the White House's political office has so dominated and corrupted the framing of budget forecasts, the documents are essentially worthless as fiscal projections.
And that -- as much as crack-addled budget priorities, such as spending more on NASA and its moonbeam-Mars mania than on poor school districts -- is a fundamental and altogether inseparable problem planted in Mr. Bush's forecasts. How can honest debate about budgeting take place when White House dishonesty underlies each projection?
For starters, the president refuses to be straightforward about the basic cause of long-term deficits. He insists they're here to stay "because we went through a recession, we were attacked and we're fighting a war." His budgets claim the same, disavowing the hard numbers buried within which show more than half of this year's projected deficit is the result of tax cuts. By fiscal year 2009, tax cuts made permanent will account for three-fourths of the deficit -- but, again, not according to the White House's stated opinion.
Second, in choosing to forecast only five years out and not the traditional 10, the administration fulfills its own limited prophecy of more than halving the deficit, from $521 billion to $239 billion. What Mr. Bush is freed from acknowledging is that 10 years hence the deficit swells again nearly three times over, to $687 billion.
For your own sanity, forget that if general-revenue borrowing from Social Security funds is disregarded, 2014's deficit comes in at a cool $1 trillion. But, since more than one administration has pulled that trick, it's hardly the story behind the fast shuffle of predicting no more than 5 years out -- which is this: The president wants his tax cuts made permanent, and he's structured their permanency so that more than $900 billion of their $1.1 trillion cost to the treasury would only begin to kick in the year after a Bush II second term.
Sort of conjures up, does it not, Joseph Welch's McCarthy-era rumination about some gentlemen, at long last, having no decency left.
Last, we're likely witnessing a White House scam of deliberately overestimating this year's deficit for -- once again, what else? -- political reasons. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has noted, the administration's estimate is remarkably higher than that made by the Congressional Budget Office. Why inflate the numbers? Simple, if your motives are more Machiavellian than honest. An artificially bloated deficit now makes the one 5 years hence much easier to halve. Plus, as the Center writes, "overstating the 2004 deficit could allow the president to announce significant 'progress' on the deficit in late October -- shortly before Election Day -- when the Treasury Department announces the final figures for fiscal year 2004."
Are Karl Rove and his boss really that crass? They were last fiscal year. Halfway through it they re-bloated the deficit projection (in contrast to outside estimates) just to proclaim a smaller-deficit victory six months later.
Here's a timesaving tip if you're ever tempted to sort out a Bush budget. Start by imagining every vulgar political angle possible. That way, trifling numbers won't gum up your arithmetic.
otherwise noted, all original