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February 08, 2004

THE NEW MATH....Over at Angry Bear, Kash shakes his head in wonderment at George Bush's statement this morning that he has actually reduced spending growth since taking office. "If you look at the appropriations bills that were passed under my watch," he told Tim Russert, "in the last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and ours have steadily declined."

But how can he say that? After all, as Kash points out, a simple look at CBO numbers shows that discretionary spending in 2001 was 5.5% higher than 2000, not 15%. How can he "get away with lying about things that are so obviously and verifiably untrue"?

Watch and learn. President Bush, who clearly likes colorful charts better than he likes spreadsheets full of numbers, apparently derived his figure from the colorful chart on the right, taken from his own budget document. It indicates that discretionary spending outside of defense and homeland security went up 15% in 2001. Or rather, that discretionary spending authority — not actual spending — went up 15%. See, he was just speaking in a kind of shorthand, that's all.

But even if that's what he really meant, you may be thinking that it still doesn't make any sense. After all, if total discretionary spending went up only 5.5%, how is it possible for his chart to show all three separate components going up by that much or more? Klingon math?

Hard to say. But really, numbers are such dreary things, aren't they? Let's move on. After all, it's the security of the American people that we really care about, right?

Indeed it is, and later this evening we shall abandon dreary numbers for good and return to yet another installment in the Bush AWOL story, this time clearing up once and for all the mystery of the torn document. Or so it seems....

Posted by Kevin Drum at February 8, 2004 04:58 PM | TrackBack


Here's some other numbers he probably finds tediously tiresome: February 8 - 1 dead and 3 wounded southwest of Baghdad in another convoy ambush.

Posted by: dick tuck at February 8, 2004 05:05 PM | PERMALINK

that discretionary spending authority — not actual spending — went up 15%. See, he was just speaking in a kind of shorthand, that's all.

No he wasn't. He just doesn't understand the difference 'cause nobody 'splained it to him.

Posted by: def rimjob at February 8, 2004 05:09 PM | PERMALINK

"What's the difference?"

Posted by: scarshapedstar at February 8, 2004 05:12 PM | PERMALINK

..."if total discretionary spending went up only 5.5%, how is it possible for his chart to show all three separate components going up by that much or more?"...

Dont'know - shifting things between categories? Including things that weren't previously discretionary, or vice/versa?

Hard to see how that would make that big a difference though. Hmmm....

Posted by: andrew at February 8, 2004 05:13 PM | PERMALINK

The difference is probably in how he defines "discretionary;" defense and homeland security may not be something he feels he can use discretion about.

I seem to recall that posited somewhere else regarding that Krugman column Andrew Sullivan wrote about. The comment may even have been made in the comments at CalPundit?

Another point to stress, is that within each section of this graph, the denominator is the previous year's figure; that means that in any given year they may not have equal share of the budget (and likely do not). Hypothetically, if the last part is 95% of the budget, growth in the total is much more sensitive to the third part than any other.

What this chart does, by the way, is it supports Krugman's point that the shift from surplus to deficit is much more attributable to the change in taxes than it is to an increase in domestic spending.

Posted by: Frank at February 8, 2004 05:21 PM | PERMALINK

Whoa! Better watch it there, Kevin.
Next thing, you'll be promising to clear up the mystery about the grassy knoll!!

Posted by: marky at February 8, 2004 05:22 PM | PERMALINK

As long as he gets to play with crayons,he's happy!

Posted by: Palolo lolo at February 8, 2004 05:24 PM | PERMALINK

I'll chip in for a brand new pack of crayons for his permanent homecomming to Crawford.

Posted by: Ron In Portland at February 8, 2004 05:46 PM | PERMALINK

I just hope that someday we will talk about "domestic" security, instead of this stupid "Homeland" moniker, which was swallowed whole by the press and everybody else who was humping Bush's leg after 9/11. Sounds too much like "Fatherland" and "Motherland" to me; far too authoritarian/nationalistic. Creepy.

Posted by: DanM at February 8, 2004 05:57 PM | PERMALINK

These statistics are always meaningless without unquestionable integrity on the part of the people putting out the numbers and a detailed analysis explaining the results. Where are the accompanying notes? Just a graph isn't worth discussing.

Posted by: BTW at February 8, 2004 06:11 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with DanM about "Homeland" Security--- the word gives me the creeps for the same reasons.

Posted by: Nate at February 8, 2004 06:11 PM | PERMALINK

For all we know, this could be % change as a % of total budget. With defense spending and debt payments way up, declining "% of as a % of" wouldn't tell you anything. And what does "budget authority" mean? Again, all we can do is speculate until we get the facts. Next subject...

Posted by: BTW at February 8, 2004 06:18 PM | PERMALINK

Great catch, Kevin. I did a quick back of the napkin calculation because, with out the spending weights, the numbers *could* average out to 5.5%. But the conditions for that, as is intuitively obvious, contradict reality:

I too am curious about how the numbers 5%, 14%, and 15% (respectively, FY2001 growth in defense, homeland security, and non-defense/non-homeland discretionary spending) can average out to 5.5% (the overall growth of discretionary spending in 2001.) Mathematically, it's possible, but a quick calculation shows that for this to be true, roughly 95% of 2001 discretionary spending must have been on Defense (*). I don't buy that. In fact, Josh Clayborn's second figure in this post shows that defense spending accounted for less than half of total discretionary spending in both 2000 and 2001 (2000: $305b of $637b; 2001: $308b of $665b) -- again, flatly contradicting Bush's statement.
In almost plain English, this means that if (1) defense accounted for 95% of discretionary spending while other stuff accounted for 5% of discretionary spending and (2) if defense grew at a 5% while other stuff grew at 14 to 15 percent, then and only then would the overall rate of discretionary spending growth be 5.5%. The numbers don't add up.

The referenced Claybourn post is at


Posted by: Angry Bear at February 8, 2004 06:31 PM | PERMALINK

Cato has some more confusing graphs, at least one of which lists defense vs. non-defense.

Posted by: Peter at February 8, 2004 06:43 PM | PERMALINK

Oh please. "The numbers don't add up"?!? Does anyone think Bush cares, whether or not he understands the details?

Millions of people heard him say he's reducing spending while Clinton raised it. Most of them are willing to believe it.

End of story.

Posted by: bleh at February 8, 2004 06:56 PM | PERMALINK

The Bush budget numbers: Weapons of Math Destruction.

Posted by: Pierre Menard at February 8, 2004 07:15 PM | PERMALINK

I'm surprised no one has said it yet...Blame the Clenis!

Posted by: Manish at February 8, 2004 10:09 PM | PERMALINK

fuzzy math!

Posted by: Royko at February 9, 2004 02:11 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin -- whether one thinks that Bush is smart or not, the ONE thing he has learned since 1999 is that he can say ANYTHING and get away with it.

Posted by: Al at February 9, 2004 05:05 AM | PERMALINK

The "homeland" business is ultimately Hart and Rudman's fault. To be fair to them, though, they probably didn't intend the word to be part of the eventual Cabinet-level department's official name.

(What would make sense? Other people have made the sensible suggestion: Call the new department "the Department of Defense" and name the other thing "the Department of War," like it used to be called. Best to call things by their right names.)

Posted by: Matt McIrvin at February 9, 2004 06:04 AM | PERMALINK

"Klingon math?"

Hey, don't insult the Klingons. At least they know how to add...

Posted by: David at February 9, 2004 07:12 AM | PERMALINK

You can get a sense of where the 15% comes from in table 5.4 of the Historical Tables volume of the budget. The issue is partly that the CBO numbers seem to be outlays and not budget authority, and perhaps partly that CBO doesn't split it out in the same way the chart does. Furthermore, the chart probably refers to function coding, so while using the figures from 5.4 shows you that 15% is reasonable (I come out with about 20%), you don't get precisely the same math.

Posted by: AG at February 9, 2004 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

I think a key issue is that spending and spending authority are not related in the simple way spending

I think this means that the 2001 number for spending authority probably appropriates 15 months of money for schools (I am counting 9 school months a year (see

I also hope this means that Bush's mistatement went beyond Klingon math. I have the impression (sorry I can't find a link) that FY 2001 discretionary spending authority was changed in the course of 2001. this would mean that the graph does not show Clinton's last budget at all since the number was rewritten in 2001 (well after jan 20).

I don't know what I am talking about, but in plain English, look at the CBO number. Actually spending is much harder to fudge than spending authority.

Needless to say, I agree with all commenters that Bush was not deliberately lying. I very much doubt he understands the difference. I'm sure I have revealed to all readers that I don't really get it either.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann at February 9, 2004 04:42 PM | PERMALINK
But even if that's what he really meant, you may be thinking that it still doesn't make any sense. After all, if total discretionary spending went up only 5.5%, how is it possible for his chart to show all three separate components going up by that much or more? Klingon math?

Well that was amazingly stupid. Tell me again how good you were at math Kevin.

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