A budget for adults (especially those who’d like a job)

President Obama’s FY2013 budget request, released today, is bound to get ample criticism from the right (and center-right) for not going far enough on near-term deficit reduction. As a few different articles have already highlighted today (for instance here and here), the president’s budget request does not honor a pledge he made to halve the deficit by the end of his first term. In reality, we’d all be in pretty big trouble if this budget chose to focus on promises as opposed to economic realities. Instead, the budget put forth by the administration today is a remarkably serious one – particularly given that Obama is running for reelection this year. The administration could have relied on gimmicks and austerity measures to focus solely on deficit reduction; instead we got a document that both emphasizes job creation and manages to hit fairly reasonable fiscal targets in the medium term.

The budget includes about $350 billion in temporary tax relief and investments to create jobs and jump-start growth. These investments are heavily front-loaded between FY2012-FY2014 – in fact, 96 percent of the proposed spending on these measures takes place in those years. Much of this investment in job creation is familiar, including policies such as:

  • $94 billion for an extension of the payroll tax holiday for two years
  • $44 billion for reforming and extending unemployment insurance for two years
  • $30 billion to modernize schools over four years
  • $30 billion for teacher stabilization and supporting first responders
  • $50 billion to fund surface transportation priorities through 2022, with the investment front-loaded in the first three years

As we’ve stated before, this job creation package should be evaluated based on its scale, the difference it will make in the coming few years, its effectiveness and efficiency, and the way in which it is funded. The $350 billion figure is a decent amount to be spending on job creation, an amount that would raise employment levels significantly in 2012 and 2013. That is more than we can expect to see Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) propose in this year’s House Budget resolution. But with an 11 million jobs deficit, it still falls short of what’s needed.

Though not perfect, the investments highlighted in the budget are fairly well-targeted. Macroeconomic multipliers show that across-the-board, spending on public investments, income-support payments, state-and-local fiscal support, food stamps, infrastructure projects, unemployment insurance, and targeted refundable tax credits garner a much larger bang-per-buck than spending on various tax cuts and credits. And since our economic problems generally still stem from a lack of demand, it makes sense that boosting the ability of consumers to spend should be a top priority for the administration.

The president’s budget “funds” this investment by proposing a greater level of taxation on those who can most afford to pay – rhetoric we have been hearing from Obama for a while now. This includes around $1.5 trillion over 10 years from upper-income tax provisions, which include, among other things, letting the George W. Bush-era tax cuts expire and taxing qualified dividends as ordinary income for those making above $250,000 per year ($200,000 single filers).

Along with addressing the jobs crisis, this budget also puts the federal government on a sustainable fiscal path. The president’s budget achieves primary balance in 2018, meaning that, excluding interest payments, spending does not exceed revenues. Primary balance is a good measure for two reasons. First, interest payments are essentially payments on past—rather than current—policy decisions, so primary balance allows us to use a measure that doesn’t punish current presidents for debt that may have been incurred by past presidents. Second, primary balance also results in a stabilized debt as a share of GDP, and this budget stabilizes debt at 76.5 percent in 2022 after peaking at 78.4 percent of GDP in 2014 and gradually coming down. And while the budget does propose around $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years, around $850 billion of these savings comes from capping Overseas Contingency Operations, and a good deal more comes from pursuing high-income tax cuts and other revenue proposals. Additionally, the president proposes achieving around $600 billion of that deficit reduction through health and other mandatory initiatives, almost half of which would come from Medicare providers.

As we said in a statement earlier today, this budget is not perfect and particularly disappoints when it comes to non-defense discretionary spending levels. Despite this reality, this budget does a pretty good job of investing in job growth while at the same time promoting greater fairness and responsibility.