Real Spending Per Person: White House vs. Paul Ryan

Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s spending plan has been released. Both sides are going to characterize it as a $6.2 trillion dollar cut in federal spending. Of course, in Washington a “cut” is rarely a cut. Usually, when politicians speak of cuts, they mean cuts in reference to what some other politician wants to spend. In this case, the chairman actually wants 2021 spending to be about $1 trillion greater than 2011 spending. But since the President wants 2021 spending to be nearly $2 trillion greater and since the annual differences between the two plans add up to about $6.2 trillion over ten years, Ryan’s plan will be called a cut.

But what about inflation? And what about population growth?

Since inflation erodes the value of dollars over time and since population growth spreads those dollars over an ever-expanding group of people, some will argue that we must increase spending just to maintain the same level of government services.

I would note that in the non-political world, we expect technological improvements and efficiency gains to make things cheaper over time (witness computing power, smart phones, and plasma TVs–all of which have gotten cheaper in real terms over time). But let us make the reasonable assumption that government is incapable of efficiency gains. In this case, we should examine “real, per capita spending.” That is, after controlling for inflation and population growth, how much more or less will the federal government be spending per man, woman, and child?

The chart below shows real per capita spending under the President’s plan (red) and under the Congressman’s plan (blue). By 2020 (I don’t have inflation projections out to 2021), the president wants to spend $1,012 more per person in real terms. In contrast, the Chairman wants to spend $470 less per person. To put this another way, the President would increase real per capita spending by about 8% while the Chairman would decrease it by about 4%.

Just about everyone agrees that fiscal calamity awaits inaction. And numerous studies suggest that spending cuts are far more effective at addressing fiscal problems than revenue increases. In this context, is a 4% cut in spending really–as Ezra Klein characterizes it–“completely, almost gleefully, unacceptable“?