U.S. Budget Looks Great If Debts Are “Off-Budget”

Don’t you wish you could do a trick like this?

Republican budget writers say they may have found a way to cut the federal deficit even if they borrow hundreds of billions more to overhaul the Social Security system: Don’t count all that new borrowing.

As they lay the groundwork for what will probably be a controversial fight over Social Security, Republican lawmakers and the Bush administration are examining a number of accounting strategies that would allow the expensive transition to a partially privatized Social Security system without — at least on paper — expanding the country’s record annual budget deficits. The strategies include, for example, moving the costs of Social Security reform “off-budget” so they are not counted against the government’s yearly shortfall.…

They include treating the cost of Social Security reform not as a present-day expenses, but more as a prepaid benefit for future retirees that should not be counted against current deficits. Or they may take the costs “off-budget,” meaning Social Security spending would not be included in the calculation of the annual budget deficit.

Over at Start Making Sense Daniel Shaviro tries to give us some idea of how this three-card Monty works and how it stands up to the laugh test.

“Freegans” and other gleaners and urban foragers have a lot to work with. According to a decade-long study by University of Arizona anthropologist Timothy Jones, some 40–50% of the edible food produced in the United States never gets eaten — a figure that includes everything from food left to rot in the fields where it grows, to food spoiled in transport, to the last couple of inches of milk in the carton in your fridge that’s gone sour.

According to Jones, the average household wastes 14% of the food it buys, meaning that over the course of a year the typical family of four spends about $600 on food that it throws away without eating.

Some good news:

The giant spending bill that Congress passed on Saturday eliminated money for developing new nuclear weapons, including one that would be used to destroy underground bunkers. It also deeply cut the Bush administration’s request for money for a new factory to make the triggers for nuclear bombs.

One of the projects eliminated was the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, widely known as the bunker buster; the administration had wanted $27.6 million for the program.…

Another program that was cut back was the advanced concepts initiative, which was also apparently for new weapons, although details were not made public. It was also supposed to provide meaningful work for young weapons designers after years of the United States’ relying on old designs, nuclear experts said.…

Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and a sponsor of amendments in to kill the bunker buster, proclaimed the cut as “the biggest victory that arms control advocates in Congress have had ,” when limits were put on nuclear testing. All of Mr. Markey’s amendments failed, but the votes were increasingly close, the last one 214 to 204.

Stopping this new nuclear weapons funding has been a big priority for the group California Peace Action, which I’m not active in myself but whose mailing list I’m on. It’s a rare and welcome example of a group like this being able to declare a clear victory in a hard-fought battle. Congratulations!

Julian Sanchez of Reason hops on the omnibus with an informative and good-humored bit about how our money gets spent.