The Real Deficit-Reduction Math

There is a simple mathematical equation that explains why deficit reduction is so difficult.

In WaPo, Ezra Klein notes the most important numbers in regards to the budget:

The equation is almost insultingly simple: 218 + 60 + 1. That’s a majority in the House plus a supermajority in the Senate (though you could do this through budget reconciliation, meaning you only need a majority) plus a signature from the president. This math problem, however, is almost impossible to solve. That’s because the politicians don’t agree, and perhaps more important, neither do the people.

And, despite the penchant for blaming “Washington” (as if it where an actual entity), Klein is correct in noting that we, the people, are primarily to blame (not to mention that due to that whole democracy thing, the people create and recreate “Washington”).  Klein goes on to note:

A CNN poll released Nov. 18 found that Americans oppose pretty much any spending cut imaginable. Avoiding cuts in Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, the mortgage-interest deduction, farm subsidies and college loans was judged more important than reducing the deficit. Americans were willing to sacrifice arts funding and pay for federal workers, but that doesn’t get us very far. And poll after poll shows that Americans want the bulk of the Bush tax cuts extended.

All of that sums to making deficit reduction nearly impossible and explains why we have the debt problem that we have.  Indeed, as I wrote back in January:  “The bottom line of all of this is that while on the one hand the public doesn’t like deficits and debts, neither do the like serious spending cuts or tax increases.” (See also:  On Disconnects Between DC and the Voters).

The fundamental problem is that there is no national consensus on these topics and we have yet to have a serious debate on the topic (and I have my doubts that we will).  Further, the filibuster rule in the Senate allows a minority of Senators (who, in turn, represent a minority of Americans, perhaps a relatively small minority in fact, depending on the configuration of that bloc) can halt any serious attempt at tackling problems wholesale (whether it is the Republican vision, the Democratic vision or some vision in between).

Ultimately, Klein is correct:  “So we’re left with many budget options, but few votes. We’ve solved the first problem multiple times over, but haven’t even made a real start on the second.” I am not sanguine that the latter issue will be resolved any time soon.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Democracy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. michael reynolds says:

    The American people have been systematically sold the idea that they can have everything and not pay for it.  This is primarily the fault of the GOP, beginning with Mr. Reagan.
    Democrats have said we need various services, let’s raise taxes, especially on rich people.  That’s dishonest but nowhere near the level of Republican dishonesty which has said we can cut almost entirely mythical waste, fraud and abuse, increase defense, keep popular social programs, and somehow actually cut taxes.
    Unfortunately if the lie is something that people want to believe then it is very hard to dislodge.  And of course the GOP will do nothing to disabuse the delusional.

  2. ponce says:

    “The fundamental problem is that there is no national consensus on these topics and we have yet to have a serious debate on the topic”
    When was the last time America had a “serious debate” about anything?

  3. Steve Plunk says:

    Blaming the people is insulting.  The American people have been misled by their elected officials for years.  Both parties.
    If the people are guilty of anything it’s been allowing the government to grow into the monstrosity it has become.  But again they were fooled by Washington.

  4. @Steve:
    Given that “the people” elect the officials who go to Washington (not to mention state capitols and city council chambers), how is not the ultimate responsibility theirs?  I find this to be a rather curious notion.

  5. <blockquote>This math problem, however, is almost impossible to solve.</blockquote>
    It will eventually solve itself.  Reality does not require our consent; that which it cannot convince through argument it will compel through demonstration.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    Generally I agree that it is the people’s fault.  We are the final authority.
    At the same time if you hire a professional and the professional lies to you, that provides at least a bit of an excuse.  If my doctor keeps telling me my symptoms mean nothing and then I keel over from untreated heart disease, well, yeah, I should have sought a second opinion, but I’m not deserving of all the blame.
    Bus drivers and store clerks and real estate lawyers and small business owners cannot be expected to be experts in economics.
    So when someone who seems like a plausible, decent fellow with the title of POTUS tells us he’s consulted all the smartest people in the world and they all agree that if we cut taxes we’ll actually end up with more tax revenue, or tells us that all we really need to cut is earmarks or waste or some easily-demonized budget item, well, we can be somewhat forgiven for not knowing better.

  7. anjin-san says:

    > Blaming the people is insulting.
    The way the right stands up to accept personal responsibility is really inspiring. “It’s all the government’s fault”!!!
    If you have been fooled by Washington, that makes you a fool. I suggest that the right needs to spend less time worrying about how Bristol Palin is doing on TV, spend less time parroting slogans hand-fed to them by Fox News, and more time doing the difficult work of understanding the complex problems we face and attempting to remedy them. Palin’s nonsense about “time tested, common sense solutions” will not lower the deficit by a dollar, nor will it put a single American back to work.

  8. Drew says:

    I wrote a blog piece for another blog during the presidential campaign titled “We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us,” the essential theme being that although we blame politicaians, its really the politicians preying on our avarice.
    And how can this occur?  Who is so stupid that they believe that all the politician’s extravagant promises of free stuff can be fulfilled?  There are only two ways: a) tell them that its only a tiny minority that is being raped, er, taxed to fund their free stuff – that is, those damned “rich bastards,” (see Obama, every speech) or b) we just borrow.
    So we have rob thy dirty neighbor, or rob future generations.  Although both parties have plenty of blood on their hands, its only the Democrat Party whose very essence embodies this philosophy.  And the Golden Goose is looking very long in the tooth.   

  9. george says:

    Blaming the people is insulting.  The American people have been misled by their elected officials for years.  Both parties.

    The implacation being that they’re not smart enough to understand what’s going on, and so have been misled by the much more intelligent people in the political parties?
    The reason people have gone along with high spending/low taxes is probably simpler than that – it was a very convenient belief.  Notice how hard it is to lead people on issues which involve sacrifice … environmental issues for instance.  Or even to ‘mislead’ them to give up smoking, drinking and driving.  

  10. @Michael:  to some degree you are identifying an inherent flaw in democracy.
    Although I would counter that after a while if one professional fails to accomplish tasks he was hired to do it is time to hire someone new.

  11. Tano says:

    “its only the Democrat Party whose very essence embodies this philosophy.”
    Thats pretty funny. Which president was it that ran on the promise to raise defense spending, cut taxes dramatically, and balance the budget at a time when we were already running deficits?
    And ended up tripling or quadrupling the national debt? And who also went on to become the seminal figure in his party, and his ideology’s policy positions?
    The modern GOP is built on the notion of paying less taxes than what is required to fund the spending that they agree to. In fact, a budget surplus is taken as prima facie evidence that taxes are too high, rather than as an opportunity to ease the debt burden on future generations.

  12. Max Lybbert says:

    The fundamental problem is that it’s possible to run a deficit for years and fund everybody’s wishes during that time.  The public doesn’t see a need for spending cuts or tax increases because they’ve been told for three decades that we can have it all.  And for three decades (aside from the budget surplus years) we have.
    But it’s not sustainable.  Some day we have to pay the piper.

  13. Steve Plunk says:

    anjin,  I was standing up for everyone.  I haven’t been fooled.  Talk of deficits and debt has been around my entire adult life yet I have never had a direct vote on it.  I have voted for those who talk of deficit reduction but it hasn’t gotten done.  The responsibility rests with those who go to Washington and lack the courage to do what is right.
    BTW, I doubt no more people on the right were concerned with Bristol Palin than there were on the left.  I never watch the show myself and don’t consider her mother ready for higher office but I love to watch the reactions from the left when the Palin name is mentioned.

  14. sam says:

    “Although both parties have plenty of blood on their hands, its only the Democrat Party whose very essence embodies this philosophy.”
    Well, at least it’s not the party of hypocrites like the other one, eh?

  15. john personna says:

    Didn’t we have a poll here recently, with tax and budget preferences by party?
    If I recall correctly, nobody wanted to cuts costs, but Dems were willing at least to raise taxes.  That’s not really my preference, but it is at least sane.
    Insane  is not cutting spending and complaining that Dems want to raise taxes.

  16. ponce says:

    ” Insane  is not cutting spending and complaining that Dems want to raise taxes.”
    Is it really insane when the base of your party wants their politicians to lie to them?

  17. tom p says:

    Here is a suggestion, SEND TOM DELAY TO PRISON until the end of time… or something like that…
    Apparently, there is justice in Texas after all.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    The Democrats are the party of tax and spend.
    The Republicans are the party of borrow and spend.
    The Democrats lie by pretending that only the rich will have to pay more.
    The Republicans lie by claiming that everyone can actually pay less.
    Neither of those positions is a profile in courage or honesty.  But the Republicans are far less rational and far more dishonest.  Their entire party is based on a Big Lie.

  19. george says:

    Neither of those positions is a profile in courage or honesty.  But the Republicans are far less rational and far more dishonest.  Their entire party is based on a Big Lie.

    I was with you until the final sentence, which goes beyond this issue (and the Democrats are the more honest of the on the deficit) to the party as a whole … or perhaps all that was missing was the addition ‘as are the Democrats as well’.
    And I suspect the reason both get away with so many lies is that politics is about team sports more than anything else.  If my ‘team’ does it its because they have good reasons, if the other team does the same thing its because they’re EVIL, or stupid, or both.  Neither party has any need to be responsible or reasonable, because both have fans who will vote for them with the same kind of blind passion that NFL teams inspire.
    Look, you’re educated, you no doubt know the history of the Republican Party, when it was founded and what it was based on.  So why resort to hyperbole?

  20. michael reynolds says:

    Because the GOP is no longer what it was.  The Republican Party had a heroic birth at a time in history when the Democratic Party could fairly be described as evil.
    That changed.  The GOP is a long, long way away from Lincoln and TR and Ike and Everett Dirksen.  In order to gain and hold power they switched sides on Civil Rights and then, under Reagan began simply lying to people.  They’ve long since ceased to be the party of fiscal responsibility and small government.  They became the party of race-baiting, gay-bashing, borrow-and-spend and now simple nihilism, a refusal even to participate meaningfully in government.
    I think this is one of the great tragedies of American history.  I simply cannot understand why anyone today would associate themselves with the Republican Party.  There’s nothing left there.

  21. mannning says:

    And, there will be nothing left here at all very soon  now with the tax and spend and borrow and spenders in government.

  22. mannning says:

    Oh, and the print and spenders too!

  23. mannning says:

    I lookeded in vain for an equation in th text, and only found a sum.

  24. Raoul says:

    I do lay the problem on Reaganism- for the record-letting the tax cuts expire and getting out silly wars would go far in ameliorating the problem (both caused by republican control)-  SSA needs no fixing- Medicare does- is the GOP now holding Medicare sacrosanct?

  25. john personna says:

    Martin Wolf does a good debt defense at the Financial Times.  Google for “Assets matter just as much as debt” under “news.”

    Please use the link to reference this article. Do not copy & paste articles which is a breach of’s Ts&Cs ( and is copyright infringement. Send a link for free or email ft************* to purchase rights.
    What then is productive debt? This is a question raised by a thought-provoking paper by Oxford University’s Dieter Helm, an expert in utility regulation.* The kernel is the idea that all societies possess infrastructure assets, which should be thought of as systems. Transport, energy and water systems are examples. We also have education, health, market, financial, judicial, defence and political systems. The more complex the civilisation, the more complex are its systems.

    The creation and development of these assets usually involves the state, as provider, subsidiser or regulator. The reason is that they have “public good” characteristics. Thus, they would tend to be underprovided by competitive markets. Neither in thinking about policy nor in measuring the economy or public finances, do we ask whether we are augmenting or running down such systems. But this is what “sustainability” is all about.

  26. So if we outlawed the GOP the problem would go away, right Mr. Reynolds?  You have a one track mind and your train of thought has derailed.
    Personally, I blame both political parties, we can call them Graft and Grafter if you want. The problem with blaming the American people is that the government has largely become disassociated from the people.  It certainly is no longer, as President Lincoln once said, “of the the people, by the people, for the people.”  Is anyone seriously going to argue that the ruling class shares the same demographics of the coutry as a whole?  The system is set up to maintain the status quo of the current two parties.  A lack of real competition and incessant philosophical inbreeding has allowed their unique pathologies to come to the forefront and as a result they have become more corrupt and detached from the rest of us resulting in an ever greater disconnect between the governing and the governed.

  27. It certainly is no longer, as President Lincoln once said, “of the the people, by the people, for the people.”

    Are you really going to argue that Civil War America was more democratic than the current age?

  28. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t think the problem is a disconnect between the government and the people.  On the contrary, we can phone them, send them snail mail, email them, overnight them, text them, Tweet them.  We can send them checks or make electronic payments.  We can create YouTubes denouncing them.  We can write blogs.  We can Reddit.
    The problem is that our leaders are often just as ignorant as the people who elect them.  And unfortunately we’ve all decided that ignorance is authenticity.  So we actively promote the politicians “most like us,” which is to say, ignorant.
    Whoa!  The American people ignorant?  How dare you!
    The American people couldn’t pick the First Amendment out of a list of likely epigrams.  The American people can’t find their own country on a map of North America.  The American people can be talked into believing that France is some kind of howling wilderness of socialist devastation and that Cuba is a mortal threat and that Mexicans have snatched the chicken-dismembering jobs away from all the white people who really, really wanted those jobs.
    It’s not that other nations have smarter or better-educated people (well, sure, Europe and Japan, but definitely not Uganda or Afghanistan!) it’s that we have less excuse for our ignorance, and we make the terrible mistake of assuming that ignoramuses are secret troves of deep wisdom.  The regular people.  You know, the average guy.  The average guy who of course could not tell you who fought who in WW2, or what the Federal Reserve Bank does, or why it’s a good idea to have an FDA, or whether that whole free speech thing really means we can say bad things about Jesus.
    We are a country that glorifies willful, deliberate ignorance, and elevates the ignorant to positions of authority on the theory that democracy means a dumbass is — by simple virtue of his dumbassery — authentic and real and best of all, “regular.”

  29. Russ says:

    Issues [foreign policy] and problems [debt] are not solved in this country, they are USED as political energy to power either party to popularity.

  30. Michael, I essentially agree with what you say about the American electorate, but I don’t think it is something that has changed over time.  If the American people are “ignorant” I would say that they are less so than they have ever been.  How is Fox News any different than the partisan rags published two centuries ago?

  31. john personna says:

    TE, was the ignorance less respected in past ages?  Did the elite, isolated by time and distance, think more independently?

  32. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t think we’ve gotten more ignorant.  But I do think we have more small “d” democracy, more direct ability to elect ignoramuses than in the past.  Basically, what Personna said:  we were just as dumb (albeit with far less excuse) but there was a built-in distance between us and our elected officials.

  33. michael reynolds says:

    Um, albeit with far more excuse I should have said.  Lazy edits today.

  34. george says:

    I’m not sure there’s much correlation between intelligence and making good political decisions.  This is seen in the disagreement among the intelligent and educated about what is the best decision, which probably has many causes, not the least of which is the tendency to put self-interest above the interests of the nation (I suspect there’s zero correlation between ethics and intelligence or knowledge).  Furthermore, much of what has to be decided involves extremely complex systems (often global) which are very poorly understood by anyone (try for instance to make an accurate predictive mathematical model), which means even the most educated are simply going by intuition and personal biases or ethics rather than the kind of analysis possible in say a moon landing, where the physics is reasonably well understood.
    Most of human history has involved an educated elite making the decisions – and the result was almost always decision that benefited that same educated elite.

  35. George says:

    America is in debt and falling apart which there is no doubt about.There are 3 things that will clearly put america back on a fiscal foothold and make us even stronger but we have Politicians and Corporations who want to screw Americans first and make us a 3rd world country.
    (1) Stop funding foreign aid which is bankrupting us to the tune of trillions of dollars while we borrow this money from a communist country that supports very few. Putting America first is not being a fascist country. A moratorium should be placed on any future funding for a minimum of 10 years.
    (2) All corporations doing business overseas should be taxed at the highest rate and double taxation which includes any importation of foreign workers.This will mandate that most companies hire Americans.
    (3) Overhaul our judicial system and remove all non violent felons from criminal records after 10 years so they can work to fill any void that we may need to  fill in the hiring gap.
    (4) Have term limits on Congress and Senate to eliminate corruption and impose a salary cap during the term limit with no other provisions provided to them that ordinary working people are entitled to.
    (5) Flat tax
    (6) Increase social security payments and lower the retirement age.early retirement insures that a new work force has employment and allows people to spend there SSI rather then hoard it which will feed the economy.
    I can go on with the list but I am sure there are many more folks that can add to it.