Rudolph Delson lives in Brooklyn. He has won no awards. The paperback edition of his novel Maynard and Jennica came out this spring.

The Federal Budget

posted Nov 3, 2009

As pleasure reading, Budget of the United States Government: Fiscal Year 2010 is uneven. It comprises five paperback volumes, totaling 2297 pages. Many hundreds of those pages are at least somewhat dull, and nearly the entire fifth volume, titled Appendix, is outright stupefying. The chapter that should be positioned first, the chapter that explains everything, is buried deep in Volume III. Still, the project has grandeur. And there are moments when the haze of fiscal tedium breaks, moments when the air can hold no more $$$s or 000s, moments when a lightning bolt shoots through the text and the reader’s skeleton becomes electrified by political panic. At such moments, Budget is as good as the best fiction.

Also, reading Budget is enough to make a fellow wistful for life in the civil service. I have therefore wistfully divided this review into six Departments, one for each volume of Budget, plus a Department of Conclusions.

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Volume I.
A New Era of Responsibility: Renewing America's Promise
($26, 140 pages, ill.)

Most of Budget was published in May of 2009, but the first volume appeared in February, a way for the new administration to spell out its agenda. David Brooks used his New York Times column to decry that first volume, saying it was evidence of “revolutionary fervor,” saying that the Democratic Party was “caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once.” Paul Krugman used his column to rejoice, declaring that if Congress enacted “anything like” what was proposed, America would experience a “huge break” with “policy trends over the past 30 years,” would be “on a fundamentally new course.”

Yes, yes. But what about Budget’s prose style?

After all, the three-page introduction to A New Era of Responsibility: Renewing America’s Promise is attributed to Barack Obama himself, a man with a reputation as an elegant writer. The casual citizen—a citizen such as myself who has shirked such responsibilities as reading the President’s two best-sellers—cannot help but wonder whether that reputation is deserved. Judging from this three-page introduction, I can report that our President likes the first-person plural. He sometimes uses “we” to refer to “We, the People of the Obama Administration”...

... In the little more than a month my Administration has had in office, we have not had the time to fully execute all the budget reforms that are needed ...

... and other times to refer to "We, the People of the United States of America" ...

... And we are still the Nation that has overcome great fears and improbable odds. It will take time, but we can bring change to America.

It is a lot to ask of one pronoun, so sometimes Obama relieves “We, the People” by referring instead to “Them, the Other People of the United State of America” ...

... We must usher in a new era of responsibility in which we empower citizens with the information they need to hold their elected representatives responsible …

... and at other times, “We, the People” and “Them, the other People” both get to take a rest while Obama makes room for the greatest of all American demographics, “You People” ...

... And as we continue the budgetary process, we will … undertake efforts to reform how the programs you fund are managed so that … you get the most effective Government possible.

A composition instructor would call this common sloppiness: an author who knows where he stands relative to his audience does not need to shift perspective so often. But a rhetorician would call it common shrewdness: deft incoherence is the preferred mode of every successful politician. The surest way to hold a majority of votes is to make no argument today that forecloses the opposite argument tomorrow. And so, of the economic collapse in the autumn of 2008, Obama writes:

This crisis is neither the result of a normal turn of the business cycle nor an accident of history. We arrived at this point as a result of an era of profound irresponsibility that engulfed both private and public institutions ....

Then, just three paragraphs later, he writes:

This Budget ... lays out for the American people the extent of the crisis we inherited, the steps we will take to jumpstart our economy to create new jobs, and our plans to transform our economy for the 21st Century to give our children and grandchildren the fruits of many years of economic growth.

As a matter of political economy, either “we” made the financial crisis ourselves, or “we” (and “our” children and “our” grandchildren) inherited it from others. But as a matter of political savvy, we both made it and inherited it. Or we neither made it, nor inherited it. Or sometimes one, and sometimes the other. Or whatever. The point of A New Era of Responsibility is not to make sense.

The point is to persuade casual citizens to submit to an agenda. And it turns out that the most persuasive writing in A New Era of Responsibility is not Barack Obama’s.

After the President’s introduction come twenty-three short chapters, one for every major federal department and agency, providing summaries of the programs that the new administration proposes. Ostensibly these twenty-three chapters were written by staffers in the White Houses’s own Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”), but the initial drafts must have been prepared by the disparate bureaucrats of many far-flung departments, because each of these chapters is written in a different voice. The resulting effect is certainly unintended, but very charming:

The Department of Defense is staffed by soldiers. They begin their budget request with a manly boast and proceed in purest West Point jargon:

The U.S. military, the strongest and most capable in the world, faces a host of external and internal challenges. Meeting these challenges requires evaluating the country’s strategic priorities and aligning scarce resources to accomplish the highest of those priorities efficiently and effectively.

The Department of Justice is staffed by lawyers. They begin their plea with a clear statement of how much their client deserves, and why their client deserves it:

The President’s Budget for the Department of Justice (DOJ) is $26.5 billion. The Budget addresses the key priorities of the President and the Attorney General, including ...

Even the technical departments have different passions and humors. One kind of engineer goes to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ...

... NASA also will send a broad suite of
robotic missions to destinations throughout the
solar system and develop a bold new set of astronomical
observatories to probe the mysteries of
the universe ...

... and a different kind sticks with the Department of Transportation ...

Surface transportation programs are at a crossroads.

Ninety-one pages into a 2297-page federal budget, it is not possible to read such a sentence without wondering what giggling bureaucrat came up with that bad pun. I imagine it was a young man. I imagine him wearing a misfit tie and imperfect khakis. I imagine him waiting giddily for weeks to see whether his pun would survive into the final edition of the budget, and I imagine him red-faced with hilarious pride in February when A New Era of Responsibility was published, walking from office to office in the Department of Transportation, snickering with his colleagues: “Surface transportation ... at a crossroads!” It is so lame. And it is so charming.

The cumulative effect is powerful. The giggling punster at DOT joins the boastful soldier at DOD, joins the confident lawyer at DOJ, joins the acolytes of Carl Sagan and William Shatner over at NASA. As this chorus of bureaucrats grows, as the prose of the budget reveals the personalities of the multitudes of civil servants who wrote these funding requests, I began to feel what it means to have a government “of the people.” I thought: Who is as diverse as us, the USA? Who is as robust as us, the USA? What other country can count so many kinds?

Damn it, I thought as I read A New Era Of Responsibility.

Damn it, I love America.

This is the triumph of the first volume of Budget. It pulls the reader along in its patriotic swell. It is a budget that earmarks $98 million dollars to buy missiles for Israel, but that only scrapes together $2 million to save gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gibbons from extinction; it is a budget with $41,100 million for the Department of Homeland Security, but only $49 million for the United States Institute of Peace; it is a budget that spends $707,000 million on “defense,” meaning war, which is $20,000 million more than will be spent on every other discretionary item put together. It is a federal budget devoted to the end-Holocene economy and the post-atomic military class and the late-American imperial project. Oh, it has its health-care provisions and its global-warming provisions. But mostly it is a federal budget opposed to my heart!

And yet the first volume made me forget all that; the first volume made me want this budget to become law, swiftly and in omnibus.

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Volume II.
Updated Summary Tables
($9, 32 pages)

Volume I of Budget, published in February, was merely a teaser volume, but it did contain certain “summary tables.” By the time the rest of Budget appeared in May, those tables needed to be updated. (For example, between February and May, the amount to be spent on defense in 2010 has gone up by $9,000 million.) Hence Volume II.

It is the cheapest and lightest of the volumes of Budget, and brides in the Greater D.C. area who have settled on a federal blue décor for their receptions might consider including Volume II in their centerpieces.

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Volume III.
Analytical Perspectives
($52, 415 pages)

Volume III makes for the best reading in Budget. It consists of a series of essays with titles like “Budget Reform Proposals” and “Federal Borrowing and Debt” that will appeal to almost anyone with an apocalyptic mindset. Consider, for example, Chapter 13:

13. Stewardship. This chapter assesses the Government’s financial condition and sustainability in an integrated framework that includes Federal assets and liabilities; 75-year projections of the Federal budget under alternative assumptions; actuarial estimates for the shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare; a discussion of tax compliance; a national balance sheet that shows the Federal contribution to national wealth; and a table of economical and social indicators.

It comforted me to know that President Obama has actuaries on staff to make 75-year projections; it comforted me to see that those actuaries do not believe that the federal government is yet insolvent; but all such comfort ended when I read Chapter 13 and saw what those actuaries assume.

They assume, for example, that the average American woman will give birth exactly 2.0 times in her lifetime and will die promptly at the age of 85.6. And then they provide graphs to show what will happen if either of these assumptions fail. If the average woman completes only 1.7 pregnancies, income tax revenues plummet for lack of new workers. If the average woman refuses to die until age 89, Social Security outlays explode from a surfeit of octogenarians. In either case, the nation will go bankrupt in my lifetime.

Lightning strike of political panic!

Are women aware of their duty to the homeland and to Barack Obama...? Are women aware they must live fecund and die young...? Are they aware that if they disobey, society will cease, and undead geriatrics will wander into the street to cannibalize the infertile living...? Just like in World War Z...? Why is no publicity campaign run to alert women to their patriotic call...?

Such are the pleasures of Volume III.

Volume III also contains a chapter titled The Budget System and Concepts. It is unfortunate that it has been relegated to pages 393-411 of the third volume, because this is the chapter where Budget is finally explained. For example, the casual citizen might wonder:

  1. Barack Obama is the head of the Executive Branch, correct? And the Constitution gives “the power of the purse” to the Legislative Branch, correct? So what right do Barack Obama and his OMB have to publish the so-called Budget of the United States Government?
  2. Every spring that the House and the Senate pass so-called Budget Resolutions, and then every fall they pass Appropriations Bills, correct? That was on National Public Radio, right? Are those the budget? If so, why aren’t they published in convenient book form?
  3. Okay, um. Let’s say that I am such a casual citizen that usually, when National Public Radio is on, I have the tap running in the bathroom or the kitchen. So, the distinction between discretionary and nondiscretionary spending: What is that, again?
  4. In general, how does any of thiscomply with American legal practice, as explained in the music of Schoolhouse Rock?

In the later years of the Clinton administration, the budget included a volume entitled Citizen’s Guide to the Federal Budget to answer such questions; that volume has since been discontinued; so citizens must now be guided by the Budget System and Concepts chapter. I cannot understand why the authors and editors of Budget have chosen to postpone an explanation of basic concepts until so late in their book. I can only assume it was out of a desire to maintain some suspense, and as such I feel I should not say too much about the budget process in this review. Still, allow me this plot-spoiler: CBO stands for Congressional Budget Office.

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Volume IV.
Historical Tables

($49, 336 pages)

There is not much to read in Volume IV. It consists mainly of tables with titles like:

Table 8.1         Outlays by Budget Enforcement Act Category: 1962-2014

Table 8.2         Outlays by Budget Enforcement Act Category in Constant (FY 2000) Dollars: 1962-2014

Table 8.3         Percentage Distribution of Outlays by Budget Enforcement Act Category: 1962-2014

Table 8.4         Outlays by Budget Enforcement Act Category as Percentages of GDP: 1962-2014

To study this book is to feel profound and professorial. The casual citizen can say to her friends: “Did you know that national defense expenditures, which accounted for merely 3.0% of GDP in 2000, have climbed to 4.8% of GDP in 2009?” In fact, the casual citizen, with Volume IV of Budget open next to her laptop, feels competent write Paul Krugman’s and David Brooks’s blasted columns for them.

Of particular note is the first table in Volume IV. It is titled:

Table 1.1         Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits (-): 1789-2014

This table moved me. Because—

Well, because 2014 seems like one of us. She is our little sister, our little year. If anything, we looked down on her a little—2014 was no 1968, she was no 2001. But there she is, our 2014, married by a hyphen to the princely and unstained 1789! Seeing her there, next to the first year of the republic, made me sit up straighter in my chair, made me swallow with emotion. After 225 years, the deeds that Alexander Hamilton and George Washington did are still relevant to our national life; if they were not, why would they be cited in the first row of Table 1.1? It’s moving, to have those gentlemen in the family.

I retract my judgment about Volume II of Budget; it is Volume IV that is the ideal wedding decoration.

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Volume V.
($73, 1374 pages)

It is the final volume of Budget, the starkly titled Appendix, that contains the most radical prose experiments. Appendix concedes almost nothing to plot, character or setting. It states its project explicitly on page 3. For every federal program—down to the most wretched federal fund and most desolate federal trust—Appendix will list the “work to be performed and the money needed.”

The result is page after page, or acre after acre, of tables and of notes.

The numbers flow into the forest of words.

The words sprout from the river of numbers.

Reading Volume V is like traversing the Amazon in full flood, and the figures are like wrack. Tables float by in three-column rafts, one column for each of the three archetypes of Time:

(1) The money that was spent in 2008;
(2) The money that is being spent in 2009; and
(3) The money that will be spent in 2010.

In Volume V, all numbers represent millions of dollars. (Verily I say unto you, That one is $1,000,000.) It is important to understand what this means for the reader of Volume V. Obama proposes to spend some three-and-a-half trillion dollars in his budget. This means that Volume V must account for $3,500,000,000,000.00, or 3,500,000 x $10^6, or three-and-a-half million million dollars. This is why Volume Vis 1374 pages long; it must contain—in increments of two-point-one (x $10^6) and eleven-point-four (x $10^6) and seven-point-nine (x $10^6)—numbers finally sum to three million, five hundred thousand (x $10^6).

Tropical fever sets in.

Volume V also provides “the language" that President Obama proposes "for enactment by Congress.” For example, President Obama proposes that Congress enact this legislation:

SEC. 702. Unless otherwise specifically provided, the maximum amount allowable during the current fiscal year ... for the purchase of any passenger motor vehicle ... is hereby fixed at $13,197 except station wagons for which the maximum shall be $13,631.

I assume that this legislation addresses some little-known aspect of federal corruption. I assume that under previous administrations, corrupt federal employees paid extravagant premiums to acquire coveted station wagons.

The density of the budgetary tables and the explanatory and statutory text in Volume V is unfortunate. It could be a fascinating read. Consider line 00.02, column II of Table #16-1523-0-1-053, which appears on page 780. It reads:


The reader, clubbed into catatonia by the first 779 pages of Volume V, might forget to cross-reference line 00.02, column II of Table #16-1523-0-1-053 against the text that follows, which explains what this line means: In 2009 the federal government will pay $526,000,000 to people made ill or killed as a result of “toxic exposures” to the nation’s “nuclear weapons complex.”

Lightning strike of political panic!

America causes half a billion dollars a year in nuclear poisoning! Half a billion, every year, from killer nukes! But there is more. The dense text on page 780 explains that the statute that grants annual payments to victims of America's nuclear weapons complex is known as “The Ronald Reagan National Defense Authorization Act." How wickedly dry, how deliciously sardonic. Still, because the authors of Volume V concern themselves only with packing a maximum data into a minimum of column-inches, all of Congress’s best Reagan jokes languish unappreciated.

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Department of Conclusions

Budget is a feat of publishing. It occupies as many feet on your shelf as an entire semester’s worth of college textbooks. It adds as many pounds to your bag as about half a dozen volumes of The World Almanac. And it is prodigal with data. It is spacious-skied and amber-waved with data. This five-volume thing that the Government Printing Office (“GPO”) is selling for $209.00? It is a real book.

And yet it is not a book that American citizens will ever read.

The problem is that conventional printing technology—words inked onto paper, papers glued into a spine—is no longer the best available means for organizing and distributing the information contained in a federal budget. Yes, GPO does sell a CD-ROM version of Budget. Yes, visitors to the GPO website can download Budget in .pdf and can access the raw data in the form of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. But far more must be done. Ours is, after all, a free society. Ours is, after all, a democratic state. And our budget determines what our society undertakes through the apparatus of our state. Ergo, said budget must be understood by us, the casual citizens.

And the Obama administration seems to recognize as much. In Volume III of Budget, in a chapter titled Leveraging the Power of Technology to Transform the Federal Government, the authors of Budget write that the government should “take creative action in developing new approaches to citizen involvement, including the utilization of social and visual technologies, such as Web 2.0 tools.” This is precisely what GPO should do with Budget. I propose:

Federal Budget Simulator: SimCity meets TurboTax. This software should feature a simple dashboard that allows citizens to tinker with the President's and Congress's economic and demographic assumptions, and simple colorful graphics to show the consequences of policy choices on the federal balance sheet. E.g.: Can we fix Medicare with higher taxes? What about with higher suicide rates?

Teen Budget Simulator: A budget simulator in first-person-shooter format. For example, if the player overfunds the Department of Defense, then a long shear of light comes across the sky, and there is a series of low concussions, and the player must make his way through the crozzled post-war America of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Fiscipedia: It is obvious that America needs a federal budget wiki. It should be jointly sponsored by OMB and CBO, and it should concern everything related to federal revenues and expenditures. I leave the horrifying details to the imaginations of the G-man's IT-man.

Such resources cannot be developed overnight, but other steps can be taken immediately, at nearly no cost. The authors of Budget brag about a website called that is supposed to help citizens monitor federal contracts and grants, but contracts and grants constitute only a very small fraction of all federal spending. This is what is needed:

GPO should coordinate with OMB and CBO to create a unified budget website. It should have a spare design, as befits our dignified republic and/or the Obama ’08 campaign. The website should contain one page for every federal spending program—not just money given to private contractors and grantees, but all spending—and that page should list how much money each federal program has spent in the past and how much the White House has requesting for the future, along with up-to date information regarding appropriations bills. This website should also feature:

Improved Search Engines: At present, if you use the GPO's website to search the budget for the phrase "submarine," you will get no results that indicate how much the President wants to spend on new submarines. Yet this is not an unreasonable thing for a citizen to want to learn from a budget.

Virtual Maps of the Budget: The website should contain navigation aids. Some citizens will be able to understand a budget organized according to bureaucratic unit (e.g., "Of the money we spend on the Department of Defense, how much goes to the Navy?"), but many will prefer to see it organized according to purpose (e.g., "Of all the money the government spent to improve the oceans, how much was used to improve the oceans with more submarines?").

Features for Gadflies,
Paranoiacs and Retirees: Each page with the website should inform visitors which of their representatives sit on which committees overseeing which parts of the federal bureaucracy. Publicly-minded visitors to the site should be able to easily email their congresspersons, saying, for example: "Congresspersons. Can we not find more than 1,800 million dollars to spend on Virginia­­­­-class SSN-774 attack submarines?"

Finally, let me acknowledge the difficulties facing the GPO. Based not in New York City but in Washington, D.C., its editors must have great trouble learning the latest publishing-industry wisdom. Still, is it too much to ask that GPO do for Budget what all the best New York houses are doing for all the best American fiction? Can we not have the budget on Twitter? And as manga?