The Fiscal Democracy Index

That’s just one illustration of how politicians’ past promises end up costing more than they ever expect. And it’s chump change when you ponder this…

Fiscal Democracy Index

This comes courtesy of Gene Steuerle, author of a column appropriately entitled “The Government We Deserve.” It’s a complicated metric, but it works like this: Take all the federal spending deemed “mandatory” (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, interest on the debt). Then measure it as a percentage of all the tax revenue Uncle Sam rakes in each year.

The percentage actually went negative last year for the first time. Yes, it returns to positive territory under Steuerle’s projections, but that assumes a more-or-less normal postwar recovery. And even with that, so much of this mandatory spending is baked into the cake that the figure goes negative again later in the decade.

“Both Democratic and Republican presidents and Congresses have presided over this shocking decline,” writes Steuerle in USA Today. They’re “fighting mainly over which downward path we’d take: by cutting revenues without reducing spending or increasing spending without raising revenues commensurately.”

Steuerle was the founding vice president of the Peterson Foundation, working alongside our friend David Walker. At a dinner we held during the festival release tour of I.O.U.S.A., during the height of the campaign season, Steuerle told me he had spoken to a number of Democrats who were feeling their oats about strong poll numbers. “They have seen the Republicans running huge deficits for years,” we paraphrase his comment, “now they feel like it’s their turn.”

Any real discussion of spending cuts is still a couple years of serious fiscal crisis away.