In my work as a data analyst I have to compartmentalize my mind because I cannot afford to let the narrative my heart most desires interfere with what the working data at that moment shows. That is a weird frame of mind for most folks. But here goes:
The graph above tells the story. There have been two major events in recent years that called for major spending measures to alleviate hardships on Americans. And as with everyone else at DK I am trying to understand how the consequences of the debt ceiling agreement would hurt or help Americans. How many would be badly affected and to what degree?
There are many questions that make the debt ceiling agreement difficult to pin down. Does this help Dems perform better in 2024 elections? What funds can be rescued later when the Dems have a trifecta again? And there are so many other scenarios and views I read here among DK comments that deserve consideration. But here are two seldom discussed points in the national conversation and I fear the subject is badly covered without some recognition of these:
The increase in non-defense discretionary (NDD) outlays is way up since 2019.
The sections of the agreement are reported according to the budget section involved, and some of it appears to be good:
Care for military veterans
The agreement would fully fund medical care for veterans at the levels included in Biden’s proposed 2024 budget blueprint, including a fund dedicated to veterans who have been exposed to toxic substances or environmental hazards. Biden sought $20.3bn for the toxic exposure fund in his budget.
But note the agreement is mostly relative to 2023 and 2024 budgets. What if we took a quick look at 2023 NDD funding compared to 2019? I am not saying we should feel good about the agreement cuts. But can we feel a little positive about the 122 billion increase in NDD outlays since 2019? (in 2012 dollars, adj. for inflation) It’s a 21% increase in real dollar terms. More importantly that is circulating now and is already doing some good. (refresher: real vs. nominal explained)
A lot of extra money supported programs during the pandemic. Many of those programs that got a boost deserved it and still need it, but some had the funds withdrawn. That is still not acceptable to anyone, but we started 2023 arguably far better off than we would have if the NDD funding had stayed on trend around $600 billion.
Inflationary effects on future budgets
Have you ever noticed the many news outlets reporting the “mostly flat” budgets for 2024 and 2025 and doing due diligence by recognizing we are no longer in a low inflation phase? Have you read their explanation about how our current high inflation takes away our spending power in every dollar spent, including future budget outlays?
I haven’t seen any either.
But some DK commenters have brought that up and a guy named Jeff Stein asked about that at a White House conference. I would not be surprised if the spending power of 2025 outlays end up around 95-96% of what a dollar can purchase today. On a NDD budget of $700 billion (2012 dollars) that 4-5% drop amounts to a $35 billion equivalent cut. How can any discussion about agreement consequences be complete if this is not taken into account?
These two points involve huge amounts of funding and no one seems to notice though they are major, vital parts of the recent budget context. (If I have erred in a major way, someone please let me know. Media is addicted to daily event coverage and critical context is often left out. This is one of the motivations when Vox was founded to provide more “explainers”.
The true ugly is the devil in the unknown details. These major moving parts are monetarily more significant than a half billion here, a half billion there. I see a few media entities confidently reviewing the changes, but leave out major elements and don’t contextualize their “analysis” , so they add to the confusion. And the reach from abstract numbers of dollars to human lives? Incalculable. And the agreement isn’t just about dollar amounts.
Though some think the public “drama” is pretty ugly, I accept that kabuki is an essential part of the political arts. The communication challenge is horrendous. Our reps must tear paths through a corrupt media hoping to avoid gross distortion of their message, and that message must address concerns of a diverse set of stakeholders, including constituents. (BTW, I can remember a period last year when Dem messaging was uniquely excellent without precedent.)
Because of the unresolved contextual elements above, I don’t see this agreement as a huge success or as a huge failure. Yet. And I get how the general media message has to be “brilliant Biden” and “Biden’s Big Win”, but as a highly partisan site DK is different and can be a place where there is room to have rational, factual conversations even when results are not 100% rosy. To me the inevitable alternative to those conversations is that we all subscribe to groupthink and plunge deeper into self deception and rancor.
I’ve got some data, ain’t got no answer. I’m OK with that every once in awhile.