Vast amounts of analysis are pouring out across the Internet today about President Obama's new budget, so much that it's hard for anyone not versed in the issue to keep up. (But if you want to make a start on it, we'd suggest this roundup of stories from almost every angle in the Washington Post's 44 blog, and of course the Choosing Our Fiscal Future news tracker). No matter what angle you're interested in, somebody's covered it.
But the sheer volume of coverage can mean that some of the basics may get passed over too quickly. So it's worth returning to a point that every budget expert knows, but relatively few people outside the government appreciate. The easiest way to tell it is to quote from this section of the president's budget submission, under the heading "The Unsustainable Path" (it's on page 42, if you're determined enough to get that far).
The deficit is projected to fall from its recent peak levels as the economy recovers from the recession and the worldwide financial crisis eases. By the end of the 10-year budget window, the deficit has returned to a lower level, and the debt held by the public is no longer rising rapidly relative to GDP. However, the fiscal position is not sustainable in the long run without further policy changes. Beyond the 10-year budget window, increasing health costs and population aging will place the budget on an unsustainable course unless policy changes are made to address these challenges.
Nearly everybody who studies the federal budget, including the government's own experts, ends up using the same word to describe it: unsustainable. The trends of persistent deficits, rising health care costs, and an aging population means that the federal government will pile up enormous amounts of debt over the next few decades, more than it can handle.
There are ways to avoid this, but the sooner we act, the better. The Choosing the Nation's Fiscal Future report suggested four different paths to solve the problem, covering a wide range of philosophical perspectives. The report also posedsix questions to ask about any federal budget, which really helps to put the news coverage in perspective. Because when it comes to the budget, it's all too easy to get lost in the details, and miss the real issue: that the United States can't go on this way forever.