Pretty much. You always want to look at both the projected deficit for the current year, because that’s when the administration updates its figure, but also for the year for which the budget is intended. You want to look at how big that deficit is not just in dollar terms, but also as a percentage of the economy, the GDP, because that’s how economists across the board judge whether a deficit is sustainable or not. The rule of thumb in the United States and abroad is that 3 percent of GDP in a growing economy is considered sustainable. So, I look to see how much over we are—and we are well over right now. You also look to see what the trend is. When will those numbers, both in dollar terms and as a percentage of GDP, start to come down?
Next, you start looking for the mix of the revenues, and the spending outlays, not just for the next fiscal year but also for the next ten. You try to gauge trends—because we are on a very unsustainable trend, given the aging of the baby boomer generation and the inexorably rising cost of health care, in the private and public sectors. Then I begin breaking it down into the exact new domestic spending initiatives, domestic spending cuts, the military cuts—especially since we’re winding down two wars—to see what they’re projecting. Then you look at increases in and decreases in the tax code. In this budget, of course, there was intense interest in what the deficit was, what the numbers were going to be, and how soon they’d come down.
And all of that plays out in a very heated context you have to capture.
The backdrop to this budget is the much more comprehensive recommendations of the president’s own bipartisan fiscal commission. We already knew he was not going to embrace the fiscal commission’s recommendations—the commission would have reduced projected deficits by $4 trillion over ten years and the president claims that his budget will reduced those accumulated ten-year deficits by $1.1 trillion, so he’s about at one-fourth the level of his fiscal commission. That’s because the fiscal commission took on the entitlement benefit program to an extent the president did not.
The budget came later this year than usual, why is that?
A lot of the time the budget is released a lot closer to the State of the Union address. Traditionally, in the State of the Union address, the president previews the major elements that are new in his upcoming budget. The president did a little of that this year, but a) there wasn’t much new to preview, and b) the budget was delayed by three weeks after his State of the Union Address because the Senate had delayed confirmation of his new budget director late last year. That gave budget director Jack Lew a six-week late start on the budget. In addition to that, the president and Congressional Republicans did not agree to a tax-cut compromise until late December. All of that affected the bottom line—what budgeteers call the “base line”—from which you calculate.
Do you feel pressure about shaping the budget narrative, given the influence of The Times?
Yes, but not really any more pressure than I feel during any other story. I have the comfort of expertise, which helps a lot—I’d be a lot more pressured if I were twenty years younger and less experienced. But I do feel pressure to get it right. When I didn’t work at The New York Times—and everybody likes to throw stones at the Timeswhen they don’t work there—we used to joke that when The New York Times makes a mistake, reality must adjust. Now that I’m here, I realize The New York Times must not make a mistake because reality does not adjust. But what I can do is inadvertently force a lot of other people to make mistakes because other people pick up on our stuff and other papers run our stories. Every journalist at the smallest entities feels the pressure to be accurate. But if it’s possible to feel more of that pressure, then working for the Times will do it to you.