Even conservatives are starting to admit that George Bush isn't serious when he claims to be doing something about the exploding budget deficit. At best — to borrow the already classic language of the State of the Union address — his administration is engaged in deficit reduction-related program activities.
But these admissions have been accompanied by an urban legend about what went wrong. According to cleverly misleading reports from the Heritage Foundation and other like-minded sources, the deficit is growing because Mr. Bush isn't sufficiently conservative: he's allowing runaway growth in domestic spending. This myth is intended to divert attention from the real culprit: sharply reduced tax collections, mainly from corporations and the wealthy.
Is domestic spending really exploding? Think about it: farm subsidies aside, which domestic programs have received lavish budget increases over the last three years? Education? Don't be silly: No Child Left Behind is rapidly turning into a sick joke.
In fact, many government agencies are severely underfinanced. For example, last month the head of the National Park Service's police admitted to reporters that her force faced serious budget and staff shortages, and was promptly suspended.
A recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities does the math. While overall government spending has risen rapidly since 2001, the great bulk of that increase can be attributed either to outlays on defense and homeland security, or to types of government spending, like unemployment insurance, that automatically rise when the economy is depressed.
Why, then, do we face the prospect of huge deficits as far as the eye can see? Part of the answer is the surge in defense and homeland security spending. The main reason for deficits, however, is that revenues have plunged. Federal tax receipts as a share of national income are now at their lowest level since 1950.