Obama's Mythical Austerity
You may recall the noise back in May that President Obama is America's most frugal executive since Dwight Eisenhower. Rex Nutting of the finance website MarketWatch started the idea, accompanied by an impressive-looking chart, that under Obama, the rate of U.S. federal spending has been the smallest since the Korean War. This dubious claim was picked up by Forbes and Jay Carney and rated "mostly true" by PolitiFact.
Unfortunately, it's not true at all. I'm a bit late to the game, but we'll surely hear this myth repeated in the coming weeks as we head into another budget season. So it is worth explaining here that the methods Nutting used to come up with his figures are dishonest and completely meaningless.
For one, they depend on CBO estimates that have since been revised upwards. If you look at the revised figures, published in President Obama's own economic report (page 411), you'll find that spending under his administration was higher than originally estimated by the CBO.
More importantly, in order to determine a given president's spending, Nutting simply compares his last year of spending with his predecessor's last year. That is, Nutting measures Obama's spending by comparing the estimate for his fourth-year budget with George W. Bush's last budget, ignoring the three budgets in between.
For example, suppose that President Bush had spent $1 trillion in his last year, and that President Obama had spent $10 trillion in each of his first three years, finishing off his term with $1 trillion in the fourth year. Nutting's study would simply compare Bush's final year ($1 trillion) with Obama's final year ($1 trillion) and conclude that Obama increased spending by 0% -- ignoring the three years of $10-trillion spending in between.
But it gets worse. Nutting takes a given president's first budget and gives it to his predecessor. For example, Fiscal Year 2009 began October 1, 2008, when George Bush was still president, and ended September 30, 2009, by which time Obama had been in office eight months. Nutting credits FY 2009 to Bush, since he began that year's budget, even though it was the Pelosi/Reid Congress that loaded it with appropriations and stimulus bills and put them on Obama's desk to be signed into law.
So imagine that in his actual last year (FY 2008), President Bush had spent $1 trillion. Obama assumes office in January 2009, and in each year of his presidency, he spends $10 trillion. After he finishes his second term, his successor cuts spending back to $1 trillion. By Nutting's calculation, President Bush would get the blame for Obama's first year of spending -- the $10 trillion in FY 2009. Obama himself would get the credit for his successor's first year of spending.
Comparing Bush's "last year" with an inaccurate estimate of FY 2013, and ignoring all spending in between, Nutting calculates that spending under Obama has increased, thus far, by a mere annual rate of 1.4%. But had spending been such as in the imaginary scenario outlined above, Obama would receive credit for supposedly cutting Bush's $10 trillion (really his own) to $1 trillion (really his successor's). This would go down, in Rex Nutting's books, as an annual 25% spending cut by Obama, even though in this imaginary scenario, he spent 10 times more than either his predecessor or successor in each year in office.
I hate to tarnish the Democrats' up-and-coming reputation as the Party of Mathematics, so the lesson here will simply be: don't believe everything you read.