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The Never Changing Demand for $4 Trillion

Bowles, Simpson and Obama (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza))

Perhaps the greatest sign that the “debt debate” in Washington lacks substance or any real concern about the deficit is that there is never an actual objective goal, like a deficit that is some percent of GDP by 2022. Instead the calls seem always focused on demanding a single grand bargain deal for “$4 trillion in reductions.” This oft repeated call rarely acknowledges that without an agreed baseline this number is meaningless, and most bizarrely ignores the simple mathematical fact that the same level of reduction could also be achieved through a series of small deficit-related bills.

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler “fact check” of Obama last night shows how completely this demand for a $4 trillion deal is detached from reality or basic math in Washington.

Obama often claims that his plan has the “balanced approach” of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission proposal, but the Simpson-Bowles plan is actually quite different, calling for tough spending cuts and substantial tax reforms — not the faux proposals contained in the president’s budget.

For instance, Simpson-Bowles envisioned $4 trillion in debt reduction over nine years; the president’s plan would spread the cuts over 10 years. A good chunk of the savings from deficit reduction piles up in that last year. When the two plans are compared apples to apples, Simpson-Bowles yields about $6.6 trillion in deficit reduction — 50 percent more than Obama’s plan.

Obama’s $4 trillion figure, for instance, includes counting some $1 trillion in cuts reached a year ago in budget negotiations with Congress. So no matter who is the president, the savings are already in the bank.

(emphasis mine)

In no other policy decision would anyone apply such idiotic logic. If the President promised to build four new highways and was able to get one of them built already, he won’t be expected to put forward a new plan to build a total of four more highways. If you have a plan and you have already achieved part of it, you get credit for what’s accomplished. It should not matter if something is done piecemeal or in one big stroke.

While you would expect this basic logic to be self-evident, it never seems to be applied to the deficit debate. No matter how much deficit reduction is enacted with smaller laws, the goal is never changed to reflect the new reality, instead the deficit hawks’ demand constantly remains for a “$4 trillion deal.”

I would also be remiss not to point out that the “Simpson-Bowles commission” never produced a report because it was rejected by the commission members. The proposal Kessler seems to be referring to is one simply put forward by two individuals, Simpson and Bowles. Of course I’m probably just being pedantic to expect the facts in a “fact check” column to be right.

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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at