The nonsense math of the budget cutting debate

government spending, money over USA map

Two plus two = five.

Now if you are as smart as the average second grader, you know that isn't true. Unless, of course, you are part of the current Washington debate on government spending.

This is not about new math, this is about fake math that is being used by both parties and a substantial portion of the news media.

It began last fall in the congressional campaign when Republicans pledged to voters that if they took control of Congress they would cut $100 billion dollars from the budget. It was a nice big round number with lots of zeros. In the small print, they said they would cut from President Obama's "budget request." No one read the small print and the number took on a mythic quality, especially among Tea Party supporters.

After Republicans took over the House and it was time to write the bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year, from March to October, Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) drew up a list of cuts totaling around $30 billion for the seven months, striking at programs Democrats tend to like: education and clean energy and aid to the poor.

But the Republican freshmen cried foul and insisted that they wanted their full $100 billion. So the committee went back to work and doubled the cuts to $60 billion, this time adding more politically sensitive cuts like border security and the Social Security Administration. The house passed the bill.

So how do $60 billion in cuts become $100 billion? By a little arithmetic magic. The cuts are measured against President Obama's 2011 budget proposal, just like it said in the small print in the campaign pledge. Except that budget was never accepted by Congress. It never went into effect. It isn't real.

By claiming $100 billion in cuts against spending that never happened, Republicans are turning math on its head. It would be like me complaining my salary has been cut 50 percent because I make half of the amount I once asked for.

But Republicans were adamant that they had reached their $100 billion target and convinced a number of news organizations to use the fake number too. But now they have been hoisted by their own petard, because the Democrats have decided they will use the phony math also.

So now the White House can claim that keeping spending exactly where it is saves $40 billion dollars -- because the current level is $40 billion dollars less than President Obama had once proposed spending. And so their position going into negotiations now is that if you add the $40 billion to the $4 billion both sides agreed to on a two-week extension -- and a few billion more in cuts they have proposed -- Democrats have met Republicans almost halfway. Which shows they have done their part to compromise.

They are halfway to a totally made-up number of $100 billion, but Republicans can't contest it because they were the ones who made the number up.

There was an amusing exchange on this during Senate testimony by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who as head of America's central bank has to know math. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) asked him how the Republican's proposed $100 billion in cuts would affect the economy.

Bernanke explained that while reducing the deficit over the long term is essential, a cut this year of $60 billion would slow economic growth and cost several hundred thousand jobs. Reed interrupted him to correct the number, saying Republicans were cutting $100 billion, not $60 billion. Bernanke just smiled and repeated his answer using the $60 billion figure.

Republicans have a clear political reason to keep using this fake arithmetic because they look like they are proposing cutting even more than they are -- and keeping a campaign promise. Democrats like it because it makes Republicans look more extreme and let's them claim $40 billion in savings without cutting a dime.

Those Americans seeking the truth, however, aren't so lucky.