Friday, February 20, 2009

Transparency is Good

The NY Times reports some changes in how our federal spending is reported:

For his first annual budget next week, President Obama has banned four accounting gimmicks that President George W. Bush used to make deficit projections look smaller. The price of more honest bookkeeping: A budget that is $2.7 trillion deeper in the red over the next decade than it would otherwise appear, according to administration officials.

The new accounting involves spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Medicare reimbursements to physicians and the cost of disaster responses.

But the biggest adjustment will deal with revenues from the alternative minimum tax, a parallel tax system enacted in 1969 to prevent the wealthy from using tax shelters to avoid paying any income tax.

Even with bigger deficit projections, the Obama administration will put the country on “a sustainable fiscal course” by the end of Mr. Obama’s term, Peter R. Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, said Thursday in an interview. Mr. Orszag did not provide details of how the administration would reduce a deficit expected to reach at least $1.5 trillion this year.

Mr. Obama’s banishment of the gimmicks, which have been widely criticized, is in keeping with his promise to run a more transparent government.

Fiscal sleight of hand has long been a staple of federal budgets, giving rise to phrases like “rosy scenario” and “magic asterisks.”

The $2.7 trillion in additional deficit spending, Mr. Orszag said, is “a huge amount of money that would just be kind of a magic asterisk in previous budgets.”

“The president prefers to tell the truth,” he said, “rather than make the numbers look better by pretending.”

This is a really, really good idea. It is about time the politicians actually have to face the real impact of their spending and the accounting tricks of the past allowed them to hide most of their sins. The freaking whole war was "off budget" for crissakes! The first step in getting a realistic picture of where we are as a nation fiscally is to quit hiding spending in nooks and crannies. Shine the light on everything.
I do want to reiterate one thing that John Cole says over at Balloon Juice on this subject:

The first thing I would do if I were Peter Orszag and company, and this is one of the very few times I actually hope someone in government listens to me, is to go back and re-score the last decade or so of budgets using the new accounting system, so when they roll this out they can say “Here is what this year’s budget would have looked like under the old system. Here is what it looks like under the new system. Here are the past ten years worth of budgets under the old system. Here they are under the new system.” For political reasons, this simply has to be done.

If the Obama team does not do this it will be like handing a loaded gun to the GOP and painting a target on your back, forehead and butt. If this isn't done and spread liberally throughout the media and internet it won't take a half hour before the Rethugs start comparing the new deficit numbers using the "new" legitimate accounting to the old budgets under Shrub and Reagan using the "old" criminal accounting and screaming socialism, communism and Goddess knows what else. They'll still do it anyway but it will take some of the sting out if Obama is proactive.

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