What’s $100 billion a month and dominating the federal budget debate?

WASHINGTON — Answer: The federal deficit.

The defict hit $424 billion for the first four months of Fiscal Year 2011, from October 2010 to the end of January, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. The projected deficit for FY 2011 remains at $1.5 trillion.

Now why is that important? Because politics, like consumer economics, abhors round numbers.

Think of the grocery store. Things cost $4.99, not a nice, round $5.00 because psychologically that penny difference actually makes the former total register in the consumer’s mind as significantly cheaper. The same is true in politics. Remember that the stimulus law had to stay in the $900 billion-ish range for literally no reason other than a ton of votes and (at the time) polled public support vanished once the cost estimates hit 13 figures. Ditto for the health care law.

And so with the budget deficit north of $100 billion a month, the messaging for the federal budget this time will focus not on how spending this or that helps the country at large, but rather on how various spending plans actually save money.

President Obama’s budget is already being rolled out alongside strenuous pledges of austerity — the federal spending freeze and a few other cuts that, percentage wise, are deep to their respective programs. Even the few calls for increased investments, like Obama’s Jim Oberstar-esque plan to increase infrastructure spending that articulated during the State of the Union, came in the context of a freeze on non-security discretionary spending.

Presidential aspirants Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, both of whom are confirmed to speak the conservative conference CPAC here at week’s end, spend considerable time in their stump speeches railing against debt.

Such is the beauty of large round numbers: They have a way of uniting people in opposition to them.

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