Well, not quite that many, but the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has released its latest in what has evolved into a once-every-two-years series, Options For Reducing The Deficit. This genre was created back in the 1970s and evolved toward its current form in the 1980s, when concern over the federal government’s booming deficit rose to a fever pitch. The idea was to give the Congress an unbiased, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand evaluation of something approaching the deficit-reduction waterfront. There were ideas for cutting spending and raising taxes, and the legitimate pros and cons of each idea were presented in a dispassionate fashion, with all of those options organized by parts of the budget – entitlement programs, by purpose; appropriated programs, by purpose; and revenues, by type of tax. An interested Member of Congress or staff member could use the volume like an encyclopedia to see how his or her target area of the budget might be accessed for savings.
(I worked at CBO from 1981 into 1984, and was involved in the preparation of the reports of that period. My clearest memories of the process are the careful and unbiased work of the organization’s entire staff that went into the reports, and my first self-taught lesson in tactical forensic editing. For my second edition, I was told that my chapter, on revenue options, was quite satisfactory but much too long, and I was given what my supervisors clearly believed to be a draconian number for reduction of the page count. I analyzed the chapter and found that the typical discussion of an individual policy option was one page plus a small number of lines long, with the formatting of the volume dictating that the remainder of that second page be left blank. I carefully combined a few paragraphs, with each combination saving on average one and one half lines [counting the blank line between paragraphs], and thereby pulled the few lines from the second pages back onto the first pages, quickly hitting my page-reduction target without deleting a word. I trust that my supervisors of that time, who expressed great admiration that I could do the job so quickly and effectively, are not reading this blog.)
The CBO volume has become an essential building block of all discussions about reducing the deficit. Many deficit-reduction plans have been constructed merely by figuratively checking the boxes of a list of the CBO options. Computer games have been designed to allow individuals in effect simply to choose from among the CBO options in a spreadsheet until they reach a target amount of deficit reduction or (to say the same thing in different words) a target lower level of debt. Such games have been made available on the Internet, or even taken to town-hall meetings so that people can debate their own deficit-reduction choices with their neighbors around a conference table.
These games have performed important functions. At the most fundamental substantive level, they have forced people to face up to the size of the budget problem. The more Americans who become aware that eliminating foreign aid and cutting congressional salaries to zero will not begin to trim our mounting debt, the better. And with that reality on the table, getting people together to debate the necessary and far more difficult choices is obviously a good thing. Getting folks with strong preferences for tax increases and against spending cuts, and vice versa, to debate the best combination of both is an important public service.