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Editorial: Get your budget facts straight

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | OCTOBER 15, 2013 5:00 AM

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Considering how much the media and politicians have been talking about the nation’s debt over the past several years, you’d think the American public would be pretty well aware of the country’s situation.

If anything, however, the public is clueless about what’s going on with the debt.

A new poll by Business Insider found that nearly 70 percent of respondents thought the budget deficit had grown since last year. In fact, the deficit has declined dramatically. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in 2013, it will only be $642 billion, down from $1.1 trillion in 2012.

The poll asked respondents to estimate the size of the federal budget deficit. Only 25 percent guessed within the ballpark: the hundreds of billions or trillions. Roughly 70 percent grossly underestimated the size of the budget deficit, saying that it was between hundreds of dollars and tens of billions of dollars (fortunately, more respondents guessed on the higher end of that spectrum).

To some degree, however, these results are understandable. There is an important distinction between the national debt and the budget deficit that can easily get lost in all the ideological shouting matches about the federal government’s debt.

The budget deficit is how much more Congress spends each year than the revenue collected by the Internal Revenue Service. The national debt is the total sum of money that the U.S. government owes.

Even though the budget deficit decreased, the national debt is still increasing. The deficit may have shrunk, but it’s still a deficit. The government is losing money. In short, the total debt is growing, but it is growing at a slower pace.

The recent budget battles in Congress have revolved around how to bring revenues closer to expenditures and ultimately slow the growth of the national debt relative to the nation’s GDP.

The parts of the budget that seem to get the most attention include Medicare, Social Security, and sometimes the military. This is understandable — they do make up a sizable chunk of the federal budget.

But as a report from last month by the National Priorities Project points out, there’s another massive expenditure that easily dwarfs the usual suspects, which virtually no one talks about: tax cuts. Lower taxes mean less money for the government, making tax breaks just like any other form of spending.

In 2013, these tax breaks accounted for $1.13 trillion, around the same size as the entire discretionary spending budget and almost double the budget deficit. If the federal government scrapped all its tax breaks, the country would be well on its way to paying off the debt in no time at all — not that we think that would be responsible policy.

Considering the size of tax cuts in the federal budget, one would think there would be substantial oversight, but the project’s report explains that tax breaks don’t require annual approval, unlike discretionary spending.

“Once written into the tax code, they remain on the books until lawmakers modify them. That means there is minimal oversight to ensure tax breaks actually achieve their intended purpose, even as they can grow in size from year to year as more taxpayers claim them for tax savings.”

Not only is the American public misinformed about the federal debt, but one of the biggest expenditures in the national budget isn’t even formally recognized as such. If we’re going to have an informed debate over the federal budget in the coming months, we need to get our facts straight first.


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