What if I told you that I could save you thousands and thousands of dollars a year, and you don’t even have to cut back on anything important in your life? What if I promised you that, just by saving a penny a day, your whole life could change for the better? What if I said you could improve your overall finances by working less and spending more?
You’d probably think that sounded too good to be true. You’d probably suspect that I was trying to scam you. You’d be right on both counts.
If early reports are accurate, President Trump’s budget blueprint will be trying to run that same scam on the American people. His budget will pretend that he can achieve huge savings without any pain. He’ll try to focus attention on huge cuts to relatively small programs — cuts that’ll be devastating for the people those programs serve but won’t make a dent in the overall budget picture. He’ll promise that he can provide public services, fund the benefits on which American families rely and make the critical investments that grow our economy, all with less tax revenue, even as he increases spending on things like a border wall. Just like all scams, this one will sound good on the surface, but it will leave us all worse off in the end.
In January, the Hill reported that Trump was crafting a budget plan with more than $10.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade, a deliberately eye-popping number. At the same time, Trump administration officials are promising that popular and critical programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will remain untouched, and that he will actually increase military spending significantly. These goals are all but impossible to reconcile. If he exempts Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (which he can’t cut, even if he wants to, without persuading Congress to change existing laws), there’s only $13.7 trillion in spending even available to cut over the next 10 years. That means Trump’s budget would have to reduce all other public services and programs — everything from veterans benefits to health care research to highways to special education — by more than 75 percent to meet his spending-cuts goal. Like all great scams, the claim of massive cuts with no pain falls apart the moment you look a little closer.
And like all great scam artists, Trump is hoping you won’t look closer. Instead, he is hoping to distract you by focusing attention on enormous cuts to relatively small programs.
Most of the reporting in the lead-up to Trump’s budget has prominently mentioned a few notable public services that are on the chopping block. These often include the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation. Regardless of whether you support the mission of these agencies, their budgets are comparatively tiny: Even combined, they will make up just 0.03 percent of all federal spending in 2017. Fully eliminating them is exactly the same as saving a buck on a $3,333 purchase. Moreover, these sorts of programs have been essentially flat-funded for a decade. These four, for example, will spend less this year than they did in 2007, after accounting for inflation. Trumpeting big cuts to select parts of the budget — parts that just happen to be already small and already shrinking — sounds good in a tweet, and it’s all part of the scam.
“We are going to do more with less and make the government lean and accountable to the people,” Trump said Monday morning. “We can do so much more with the money we spend.”
But the biggest part of the budget swindle happens on the other side of the ledger. Trump is throwing around huge numbers and promising to eliminate a list of relatively tiny programs, all in the hopes that you won’t notice or care that he’s trying to give an enormous tax cut to the richest people in America. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the Trump campaign’s tax plan would reduce federal tax revenue — and thereby increase federal debt — by at least $6.1 trillion. Roughly half of that money would go directly into the bank accounts of the richest 1 percent.
Of course, Trump will argue — as good snake-oil salesmen do — that picking your pockets is good for you. You can be sure he will try to sell you on the idea that enormous tax cuts for the wealthy will boost the economy for everyone. Never mind that we’ve tried that before, both at the national level with President George W. Bush’s tax cuts and at the state level — for instance, in Kansas — to no measurable effect. Never mind that the last thing a giant, multinational corporation making billions in profits and already paying little in taxes needs is another tax cut. And definitely ignore the fact that the primary beneficiaries of such a tax cut will be people like Trump and his family (though we can’t be sure how much he will profit, because Trump has still not released his tax returns).
To be fair to Trump, this is the same scam that Republicans in Congress have been running for six years. Their budgets always contained the same basic tricks and sleights of hand, and they did seem to get away with it. It’s no wonder that Trump’s White House is trying the same thing. Let’s hope Trump will find that the American people aren’t so willing to tolerate the same kind of budgetary double-cross coming from the president of the United States.
Michael Linden is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a former Senate Budget Committee staffer. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.