Trump won’t be sending a formal budget to Congress for a few weeks. But he’s already announced a hiring freeze for federal employees, with the notable exception of the military. Right-wing media have claimed that he wants to cut the budgets of executive departments by ten per cent and payrolls by as much as twenty per cent. Kellyanne Conway said that the President would call for converting Medicaid to a block-grant system. And Trump staffers have been working Capitol Hill, arguing for steep cuts in discretionary spending, including privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and getting rid of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Legal Services Corporation.
These moves would have a drastic effect on many people’s lives. But they’re not going to do much to balance the budget. Most federal spending is nondiscretionary, meaning that it goes to entitlements (such as Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance) and to pay the interest on the national debt. Discretionary spending totals just $1.2 trillion a year (out of a budget of almost four trillion), and roughly half of that goes to national defense, which Trump insists that he won’t touch. The federal budget deficit is around six hundred billion dollars a year, and analysis by the Tax Foundation suggests that Trump’s proposed tax cut would reduce federal revenue by another half trillion or so. So it’s simply impossible for Trump to balance the budget while protecting defense and entitlement spending.
Fortunately for Trump, most voters have no real idea how the government spends its money, and plenty of his supporters believe that you can balance the budget by just hiring fewer people, making government more efficient, and getting rid of the odd department. In a 2013 survey of Fox News viewers, forty-nine per cent said that “cutting waste and fraud” would eliminate most of the national debt. Polls of the general population have found that people believe that more than twenty-five per cent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid (it’s less than one per cent); that ten per cent goes to pensions and benefits (today, it’s 3.2 per cent); and that five per cent goes to PBS and NPR (it’s 0.01 per cent). The median guess about how much food and housing assistance cost was three to four times as much as the true figure.
The sociologist Arlie Hochschild, in her recent book “Strangers in Their Own Land,” about working-class Republicans in Louisiana, documented wider misconceptions. Many of the people she talked to believe that the federal government employs forty per cent of American workers; it’s closer to two per cent. “They think that the government is full of waste and freeloaders,” Hochschild told me. “And they believe that most government money is going to programs—welfare, foreign aid, the arts, even environmental protection—that aren’t for them but for the people they feel superseded by.”
It’s not hard to see how these misconceptions arose. For decades, the G.O.P. and right-wing media have been saying that the government is riddled with fraud and wastes money on handouts. So, although moves like a hiring freeze or axing the N.E.A. and legal aid would have no real impact on the deficit, Trump’s supporters don’t see these moves as trivial—let alone as window dressing designed to distract them from other, less populist measures, like a tax plan that would benefit mainly the rich. “When Trump voters hear that he wants to cut the federal payroll and shut down the N.E.A., a bell goes off that says he’s a deficit hawk, even if his tax plan will supersize the debt,” Hochschild said. A few distracting gestures may enable Trump to reassure people that he’s keeping his campaign promises, even if his budget never comes close to being balanced. How is he going to solve his budget dilemma? By pretending that he has.
James Surowiecki, “Trump’s Budget Bluff”, The New Yorker (13 & 20 February 2017), 34.