There Is No Painless Way to Balance the Budget

A protester calls for a tax increase on the wealthy outside Ted Cruz’s Houston office. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.)

You cannot balance the budget just by cutting programs that you don’t like. You cannot balance the budget by booting layabouts off welfare, by reducing “waste, fraud, and abuse,” by eliminating foreign aid, or by repealing the grievously misnamed Affordable Care Act. And, progressives, take note: You cannot balance the budget by reinstating Eisenhower-era tax rates, either. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind. 

“Non-defense discretionary spending”—meaning everything except the military budget and statutory entitlements such as Social Security—adds up to a pretty small share of federal spending. 

In fiscal year 2022, the federal deficit was about $1.4 trillion, which was 5.5 percent of GDP. All discretionary spending combined was about $1.7 trillion, but non-defense discretionary spending was only about half of that. What that means is that if you cut total non-defense discretionary spending to $0.00 (an absurd notion, but useful for the purposes of illustration) you would not eliminate the deficit—you would, in fact, only roll it back to its approximate level in 2018. If you want to balance the budget by cutting both defense and non-defense discretionary spending, then you’d have to eliminate the Army and the Air Force and get by with the Navy and the Marine Corps, or make cuts of roughly equivalent depth—cutting nickel-and-dime “woke” programs won’t get it done. Obviously, that is not a thing that is going to happen—so we should not pretend that this is a plausible option. 

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