Something easily ignored in discussions of competing think tank visions of balancing the long-term budget is that most of the offerings don’t actually balance the budget. The exceptions are CAP and the Heritage Foundation:
In terms of Heritage, I think a non-technical explanation of how they achieve a balanced budget is through laughable ideas about what a sustainable level of spending is. Check out AEI for a conservative presentation that makes some kind of sense, albeit representing an ethical worldview I can’t endorse.
Among the progressive think tanks, the basic difference is that we spend less in order to achieve balance. I’m not sure what the official CAP position on this is, but I think there are two good reasons to map out a balanced budget strategy even though it’s true that you don’t need to do this in order to achieve economically necessary debt stabilization. One is that these are all obviously aspirational policy statements, not things that are going to happen in the real world. And what a balanced budget statement says is “these are public functions we think are worth spending money on, this is what they cost, and here’s an economically smart way to pay for them.” The message gets fuzzier if revenue – spending is a negative number.
The other thing, of course, is that “stuff happens.” Nobody sitting down in 1925 to write a 25-year budget forecast would have made the funds available to win World War II. It’s nice to think that you have a plan that leaves headroom to engage in some deficit spending if it turns out a meteor is going to strike the earth, or Jack Layton is the leading edge of a Viltrumite invasion.