John Scalzi links to a New York Times online feature called “You Fix the Budget“, which purports to let you eliminate various categories of spending and raise various categories of income to come up with a ‘projected’ budget. Of course, despite the impressive credentials, this is an online exercise put together by journalists, which means it has one moderate problem and one extremely serious problem:
The moderate problem is that the descriptions of each category are oversimplified, in some cases are policy statements having not much to do with reality (such as medical malpractice ‘reform’) or are laughably vague (what are those ‘other’ cuts going to look like, exactly?), and considers nothing but the net effect on the deficit – ignoring externalities, societal costs and, really, anything except ‘deficit, plus/minus’.
The serious problem is that, as you can see from comments not only at Whatever but elsewhere on the Internet, people are completely oblivious to the existence of the moderate problem. “Why, that was easy,” they say. “Why can’t our lawmakers figure this out? It’s not hard!”
Indeed, it’s not hard to push numbers around and come up with a surplus, when you’re working with extremely limited information and don’t have to care one way or the other about anything other than whether the “projected” result helps the deficit. It’s quite a bit harder in the real world, where things like public safety and unemployment are also important considerations.
It’s an economics version of “My kid could paint that!”