Myth #1 The Bush tax cuts wiped out last decade's budget surpluses
Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), for example, has long blamed the tax cuts for having "taken a $5.6 trillion surplus and turned it into deficits as far as the eye can see." That $5.6 trillion surplus never existed. It was a projection by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in January 2001 to cover the next decade. It assumed that late-1990s economic growth and the stock-market bubble (which had already peaked) would continue forever and generate record-high tax revenues. It assumed no recessions, no terrorist attacks, no wars, no natural disasters, and that all discretionary spending would fall to 1930s levels.
The projected $5.6 trillion surplus between 2002 and 2011 will more likely be a $6.1 trillion deficit through September 2011. So what was the cause of this dizzying, $11.7 trillion swing? I've analyzed CBO's 28 subsequent budget baseline updates since January 2001. These updates reveal that the much-maligned Bush tax cuts, at $1.7 trillion, caused just 14% of the swing from projected surpluses to actual deficits (and that is according to a "static" analysis, excluding any revenues recovered from faster economic growth induced by the cuts).
The bulk of the swing resulted from economic and technical revisions (33%), other new spending (32%), net interest on the debt (12%), the 2009 stimulus (6%) and other tax cuts (3%). Specifically, the tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 are responsible for just 4% of the swing. If there were no Bush tax cuts, runaway spending and economic factors would have guaranteed more than $4 trillion in deficits over the decade and kept the budget in deficit every year except 2007.
Entitlements and other obligations are driving the deficits. Specifically, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and net interest costs are projected to rise by 5.4% of GDP between 2008 and 2020. The Bush tax cuts are a convenient scapegoat for past and future budget woes. But it is the dramatic upward arc of federal spending that is the root of the problem.