The Fog of War Budgeting

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 1:44 PM EDT

Gordon Adams says that rumors that a budget deal will include $1 trillion in defense cuts is just smoke and mirrors:

Right now, the adminstration's budgets assume that war costs will be $50 billion a year over the next ten years. That is not a real number; it is what budget folks (like me) call a "plug" — we know something will go there, but we don't know what it is.

By contrast, the Congressional Budget Office uses its own "plug" in forecasting future war costs. Theirs is based on what was the last appropriation for the war, or $159 billion in fiscal year 2011. Then CBO just mechanically projects that number out over ten years, regardless of what policy might be.

So if the deal assumes that by, say, 2014 our wars all wind down to a mere $50 billion per year, that's a savings of $109 billion for eight of the next ten years compared to the CBO estimate. That comes to $872 billion over ten years, or, roughly speaking, $1 trillion.

And you never know: maybe this will actually happen. But simply saying so doesn't make it any more likely, nor does it make it any more likely that we'll avoid future wars. And it certainly doesn't force any serious cuts in the Pentagon's operating budget.

If it ends up making a budget deal more likely to pass the House, I guess I'm OK with it. But no one should mistake this for any kind of serious spending cuts. Those, apparently, are being saved for the poor and the elderly.