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Welcome to STop, the Seattle Times Opinion blog where our editorial writers and editors share their evolving thoughts on a variety of issues. STop is a place where opinion writers and readers can exchange views and readers can learn more about how editorial positions are formed.

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February 24, 2005

The Rhetoric of Numbers

My most persistent critic wrote a long criticism of my latest Social Security post. I deal with only a small part of it here, which is use of figures.

On the federal budget, he wrote:

We have a general budget crisis. Bush's tax cuts to the wealthy have created a structural fiscal morass as far as the eye can see. The future deficits dwarf anything even the most no nothing foaming at the mouth spittle tossing proponents of privatization have used to scare people. It is burning a hole in our pockets. It may well spell ruin in the near term.

On the cost of transition to private accounts, he wrote:

How’s 15 trillion sound?

On the cost saving the current Social Security by a tax increase, he wrote:

The tax increases required to deal with this problem "in the future" are perhaps 2 per cent of GDP. Critically, this assumes the dismal growth figures used by the SSA come to pass. THIS MAY NOT(and most likely will not) HAPPEN!!!!!! I say let those in the future deal with it.

Compare the rhetoric here. Crisis, morass and ruin; $15 trillion; 2 percent. Big, big, tiny. But if we look at the federal budget deficit as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, it also looks pretty small:

2002, 1.3%
2003, 3.5%
2004, 3.6%
2005, 3.5%
2006, 3.5% Bush estimate
2007, 2.3% Bush estimate
2008, 1.7% Bush estimate

You can take the estimates or leave them. The average federal budget deficit in the past 40 years was 2.3% of GDP.

Using percentage of GDP is a way to make the numbers look small. They are not small; the deficits are large. But increasing the payroll tax by 2 percent of GDP is a very large increase in a tax on labor, and if we wait until 2020 to do it, or 2040, it will be even larger.

Respond to Bruce.

 
Posted by Bruce Ramsey at February 24, 2005 11:47 AM



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