Looking Ahead: Dueling Budget Graphs and the Next Clear Choice

Looking Ahead: Dueling Budget Graphs and the Next Clear Choice

(You’ll note I’ve deviated a little from my expected theme. Turns out that there’s good material on both sides of the aisle!)

When most of us vote, we generally need very little information. Democrats tend to vote Democratic. Republicans tend to vote Republican.

There are some interesting suggestions that this might be less true than we imagine. The Gallup organization released a poll in early March that indicated that 42% of respondents considered themselves to be Independents. That’s compared to 30% who called themselves Democrats and 25% who called themselves Republicans.

It’s not a record, even in recent memory. In February, Gallup found 45% identifying as Independents.

But these numbers hide an important truth; even Independents are partisan in their overall tendencies. Even these most recent Gallup results indicate that the overwhelming majority of Independents will admit that they are “leaners” toward one party or the other. When one includes “leaners” in the partisan count, Democrats and Republicans combined make up a whopping 89% of the total voter population.

As political scientist Alan Abramowitz noted earlier this year, “the large majority of independents are ‘closet partisans’ who consistently support only one party’s candidates.”

The path ahead for our country, consequently, would appear to be paved either in blue or in red. No Independent revolution is in the offing. So where are our major parties taking us?

Even with partisans as loyal as we tend to be, it seems that our party leaders aren’t comfortable making their case with clear and fair comparisons. Instead, there’s a remarkable tendency to cook the books.

Take, for example, Representative Ryan’s budget proposal, which, like prior plans, has been tagged with “The Path to Prosperity” label. There’s a neat and compelling little graph about debt growth that sells the plan well:

Representative Ryan Budget Graph 2015

Apparently, our choice is between the accumulation of a vast load of debt, or adopting the Path to Prosperity budget. Clearly, that’s no choice at all.

Which is, of course, exactly the point. No one, including the Democratic leadership in Congress and the White House, considers the “current path” viable for the long term. Comparing the Republican budget plan to what is, in effect, no serious plan at all is a path to easy rhetorical victory. But it doesn’t really tell us much about the value of the plan for our collective future.

Representative Ryan, however, is not alone in his selective use of data.

The Obama administration’s FY 2015 budget document includes this dramatic graph supporting adoption of the president’s budget:

President Obama Budget Graph 2015

This graph is no better . . . indeed, it’s worse. For one, its compares the president’s proposal to a baseline that reflects the same untenable assumptions as Representative Ryan’s “Current Path.” More critically, the graph has what is called a truncated y axis, meaning that, instead of seeing the differences in the two paths in a true scale by showing the y axis originating at zero (as the Representative Ryan budget graph does), this graph begins at 68% on the y axis.  The effect of this truncation is that the difference between the two paths (the baseline and the president’s budget), which results in a less than 10% difference in percent of GDP in the out year (2024), looks like a massive change of course.

What we all need are fair comparisons, not manipulated numbers and tables. Before we spend our precious vote, we’d like to know what we’re getting.