What Does "Balance the Budget" Even Mean?

This is a story about the deficit scolds who substitute attitude for argument and how they use the public’s ignorance about the federal budget to their advantage.

It comes from sparring over the House Republican budget, which Republicans claim will achieve a balanced budget within ten years, and Barack Obama’s budget, which he will be submitting to Congress this week. Neither gets us to a zero deficit. The White House spin has been that balancing the budget isn’t an important goal by itself—deficits, surpluses, or balance are only means to the end of a growing economy or creating jobs. In line with that thinking, last week White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said, “You don’t want to balance the budget for the purposes of just balancing the budget.” 

As Slate’s Matt Yglesias points out, the White House is correct: There's no magic economic reason to run a balanced budget every year. Reducing the debt really is only a good idea if it is done in the service of some other goal. Less debt isn’t always a good thing. But Rory Cooper, a staffer for House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, took to Twitter to mock this idea: 

You don't want to balance your checkbook just for the sake of balancing your checkbook. #WhiteHouseLogic

It’s clear the White House and Cooper are talking about getting our deficit down to zero. But wait—balancing one's checkbook has nothing to do with not having debt; it’s about properly accounting for inflows and outflows. If your accounting matches the bank’s, the checkbook is balanced, regardless of whether you’re in the black or red. 

The inaccuracy isn’t inconsequential, but rather consistent with a long history of of using “balance the budget” to mean all sorts of things that have little to do with the proper meaning of matching federal revenues with federal spending. In Cooper’s case, the implication is that the problem with the federal budget is one of sloppy accounting—the government doesn't really know what it's doing—and that it is running a deficit. I'm reminded of Kevin Kline as the fake-but-sort-of president in Dave, who calls in an accountant friend to try to sort out the budget. As if better budgets were primarily about better accounting, and not different and contestable policy choices. 

Whatever “balancing the budget” means, one thing is clear: People think it’s a good thing. Which gets to a broader underlying question: Why do people hate budget deficits? The truth is we don’t really know for sure. I can identify at least four possibilities of what people really mean when they say they are for a balanced budget:

1. The obvious one: People really do care the government revenues match government spending. 

2. Then there’s the one that I think Cooper and “Dave” are hinting at: that government should get its affairs in order, and that failing to “balance the budget” is basically about sloppy accounting.

3. I’ve found that for many Republican politicians, balancing the budget means “stop spending money on programs we don’t like.” That’s the sense under which they are just incredulous at the idea that the Affordable Care Act could be good for the budget; for them, it can’t by definition, but only because their definition of “budget deficit” isn’t really about budget deficits. This one also fits with the notion that government “waste” for most people just means “spending on stuff we don’t like.”

4. And then there’s the one from the classic moment in a 1992 Bush/Clinton/Perot town-hall debate, in which a questioner asked George H.W. Bush how the deficit affected him personally—by “deficit” she meant, apparently, the economy in general. 

Why do people conflate all of these things? To some extent, I do think there’s some deliberate effort here by deficit scolds to confuse an issue that is fairly complex as far as public policy goes. And to some extent, it’s probably because very few politicians, for various reasons, are willing to stand up for deficit spending. 

The outcome is that cutting deficits—in the abstract, without any content at all, much less specific spending cuts or tax increases—tends to be very popular. And that may actually help to produce real deficit cutting even when it’s terrible economic policy, as Paul Krugman and other economists believe has been the case over the last few years. What’s more, because the case (such as it is) for deficit reduction is so abstract and symbolic, deficit-reduction politics may be particularly prone to oddball schemes to get those abstract results without anyone having to take responsibility for how it happens. Thus, perhaps, everything from Gramm-Rudman in the 1980s to the “Supercommittee” and sequestration now—both gimmicks, not well-thought-out policies.

The truth is that the responsibility should be with the people who really do care about balanced budgets to explain what they are and why they are important. If they did that, perhaps it might produce a better debate about budgets, and maybe even better policies. 

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