What We (Don’t) Talk About When We Talk About Budgets

Blog contributor 
Graduate Student

A recent edition of DecodeDC, “Paint by Numbers,” is an example of how even the most well intentioned discussions of the federal budget can reinforce some bad political and journalistic habits.

The podcast, launched by former NPR Congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook after a successful Kickstarter campaign, is a great example of what talented reporters can accomplish in a relatively new medium when freed from the need to cover the often meaningless day-to-day goings-on in Washington. Past episodes have examined whether the coordinated protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) had any lasting effect and how we ended up on the road to sequestration.

“Paint by Numbers” opens with Seabrook standing on the Washington Mall with Jess Bachman’s famous Death and Taxes poster. She asks a number of passersby what they thought of how much the federal government spends in different areas. The Department of Defense looms large on the poster, which displays spending in medallions proportional to their fraction of the total discretionary budget, and its size surprised a number of people Seabrook spoke to. At least three of Seabrook’s interviewees expressed particular concern at how small the federal government’s commitment to education is—about $77 billion in 2012, compared to $671 billion spent on defense. The highly unscientific sample suggested that education is just as vital a social investment as is defense, and that federal spending on it should reflect that importance.

As Bachman himself admits in the podcast, though, this isn’t really a useful comparison.

The most recent figures (PDF) from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics are for a different year, 2010, but they indicate that only 12.7 percent of school funding comes from the federal government; the rest is budgeted at the state and local level, and primary and secondary education spending totaled $607 billion in 2010. And this number still doesn’t include private and parochial school spending, higher education spending, for-profit education, continuing education, corporate training, and any number of other ways in which Americans increase their educational attainment (soon we’ll need to add the value of time spent on MOOCs to that list).

But there’s a deeper problem with thinking about social priorities (or, more prosaically, policymaking) in terms of either total spending or budget shares: it may be that accomplishing different goals requires different levels of investment across issue areas. Becoming as safe as we want to be may cost more than becoming as educated as we want to be (though it’s more likely that we spend too much on defense and too little on education (PDF)).

Whether or not such investments should flow through the federal government is a primary ideological fault line in American political life, but that debate often blithely assumes that what citizens want is “more” or “less” government in the form of “more” or “less” spending in a given area—probably because that’s the question we usually ask.

This is not to argue that we can or should rigorously apply cost-benefit analyses to every social or governmental endeavor. Far from it. Nevertheless, conflating what we spend and what we value is a mistake, and one that journalists and experts should avoid—at any cost.

Area of study 
Federal Budget