Ryan's spending cuts aren't just big, they are impossible

What would you cut?

Yesterday, we touched on why Paul Ryan's budget will inevitably lead to skyrocketing deficits. But one part of that in particular deserves unpacking: Ryan wants to cut almost all of the discretionary federal budget down to just 0.75 per cent of GDP. That is, bluntly, impossible.

The (simplified) argument against Ryan's "fiscal credibility" is that he wants to cut taxes and spending. But while no-one ever argues with tax cuts, the spending cuts he has laid out are implausible. As a result, his plan would result in lower taxes but the same spending, creating a budgetary black hole which will rapidly increase the deficit.

The claim about spending cuts, however, deserves some unpacking. Leaving aside for the moment Ryan's plans for Medicare, Medicaid and social security, he wants to reduce spending on everything else to 3.75 per cent of GDP by 2050.

That "everything else" includes defence spending, which Mitt Romney has separately promised to guarantee receives 4 per cent of GDP, and which has in fact never fallen below 3 per cent of GDP. Given even Ryan doesn't plan to fund federal services with negative money, lets assume that his plan calls for 3 per cent of GDP to be spent on defence, leaving 0.75 per cent of GDP to be spent on everything in the federal budget which is not Medicare, Medicaid, social security or defence.

America's GDP for 2011 was $15.09trn, which means Ryan's discretionary budget has a little over $113bn to allocate. What costs $113bn?

The administration for children and families is a centralised agency under the aegis of the Department of Health & Human Services which provides most welfare services aimed at children and families. It takes up $16.2bn of federal funding.

Food and nutrition assistance distributed by the Department of Agriculture stops people starving. It costs $7.8bn.

The National Science Foundation spends $1.4bn on Maths and Physics research, its largest single spending area (largely due to the fact that health research is given to the National Institutes of Health instead).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA – is roughly the equivalent of the Met Office. It costs $5.5bn a year.

The Department of Energy spends $0.5bn on advanced computing research, $0.8bn on High Energy Physics, and $2.0bn on basic energy research, all of which ensure that American energy supplies are fit for the future.

NASA cost $18.7bn in 2012, and managed to land a rover on Mars this year, which has got to count towards some value for money.

The Internal Revenue Service – although mostly concerned with bringing money in, rather than spending it – required a budget of $13.3bn to do just that.

$2.4bn was spent on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment domestically and $5.6bn on the same overseas. $2bn was spent on public health responses and dealing with infectious diseases, and $4.6bn was spent on the Indian Health Service, which provides healthcare to Native Americans.

The Postal Service cost $5.9bn and the Federal Aviation Administration spent $13.1bn. Proving, yet again, that trains rule and planes drool, the Federal Railroad Administration cost just $3bn.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – which, yes, sounds less like a government department and more like the best party shop ever – had a budget of $1.1bn in 2012.

The two highest resourced Institutes of Health were the Cancer Institute, and Allergy and Infectious Diseases. They got $5.2bn and $5.0bn respectively.

Those programs alone – some big, some small - spend, between them, $114.1bn a year. That is $900m more than what Paul Ryan wants to spend on the entire non-defence discretionary budget.

Or, to put it another way, we have used up the US budget on projects which are entirely valuable, and which would cause real pain if cut, without even touching on:

The FBI ($8.1bn), Elementary and Secondary Education ($41.4bn), Financial Aid to university students ($31.4bn), the entire legislative, judicial and presidential branches ($12.3bn), public housing and housing assistance ($35bn), the FDA ($2.7bn), the EPA ($9.0bn) and FEMA ($6.8), the highway administration ($43.6bn) and the entire department of the interior ($12.0bn).

(Those departments, by the way, have a budget totalling $202bn. So even if everything else in the entire discretionary budget didn't exist, they would still have to lose almost half their budgets to stay within Ryan's spending limits)

Oh, and that's not even mentioning the smaller agencies, which would likely come under the knife in an attempt to squeeze out every last cent. Agencies like the FTC, Holocaust Memorial Museum, FCC, Smithsonian Institution, SEC and the entire District of Columbia may have budgets which amount to little more than rounding errors in the grand scheme of things, but you can be sure some of them will go as well.

But all of this assumes that Paul Ryan will be able to get defence spending down to its historic minimum of 3 per cent of GDP. Right now, the National Security budget is $754bn, and the Department of Defense alone commands $671bn. That is 5.0 per cent, and 4.4 per cent, of GDP, which Ryan would need to slash.

The spending cuts he desires are impossible. They will not materialise, and never could be expected to. And so Ryan will either have to abandon his plan entirely, or pass unfunded tax cuts. If he really is a deficit hawk, that has got to qualify him as one of the most incompetent ever

See an infographic on Ryan's budget here

Paul Ryan speaks during a campagin stop in Des Moines, Iowa. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.