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Science Fiction Budgeting

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Science Fiction Budgeting"

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Along with the fact that Paul Ryan’s plan to eliminate the national debt by 2080 would not, in fact, eliminate the national debt by 2080 I think there needs to be more attention paid to the fact that sitting around in 2010 talking about the 2080 budget is insane. After all, that’s seventy years from now. Long-term planning is nice, but it’s useless unless you have some realistic grip on the timeframe you’re talking about. Turn your time machine seventy years back in time and consider the fate of a member of congress in 1940 trying to eliminate the national debt by 2010.

He’d have a hard time taking account of America’ entrance in World War II, the end of the war, the start of the Cold War, the “small” Korean and Vietnam wars, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the decision to maintain a global military presence, 9/11, Iraq, etc. And that’s to say nothing of the creation of Medicare, the substantial expansion of Social Security, the creation of Medicaid, the inflation of the 1970, the Great Recession of 2007-2010, etc., etc., etc. Long story short, he’d be flying blind. In 1940, out of 35 million private homes over 10 million lacked running water. In 2010, 60 percent of households have broadband internet.

Zephram Cochrane is projected to master faster than light travel by the 2060s. It’s worth thinking about the enduring consequences of decisions we take today, but it’s really not worth spending much time thinking about far-future budget conditions. Over the next ten years, Ryan’s plan would increase the deficit, whereas the distant future is necessarily out of the hands of today’s members of congress.

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