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Trump reportedly wants to cut cultural programs that make up 0.02 percent of federal spending

25 January 2017
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A report in the Hill details the extent to which the incoming administration of Donald Trump wants to slash the federal budget. Big cuts to major government departments are mentioned, as are cuts to cultural programs that receive federal funding.

“The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized,” the Hill's Alexander Bolton reports, “while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely.” In total, the administration aims to cut spending by $10.5 trillion over the next decade.

Humans are innately bad at scale when it comes to big numbers. A million, a billion, a trillion — it all sort of blends together. That can make discussions about the massive size of the federal budget somewhat confusing.

So let's look at the 2016 appropriations for the three programs identified in that quote above and compare them with the overall outlays of the federal government. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting received $445 million in 2016. (It gets additional funding from donors like you.) NEA got $148 million. NEH requested the same. The Congressional Budget Office figures that about $3.9 trillion was spent by the government during the fiscal year.

We can look at that visually, using a pie chart. The programs above are represented with blue slices.

Well, sort of a pie chart. If you were at Thanksgiving and demanded a slice of pecan pie proportionate to 2016 NEA spending relative to the federal budget, you'd end up with a piece of pie that would need to be sliced off with a finely-tuned laser. Put another way, if you make $50,000 a year, spending the equivalent of what the government spends on these three programs would be like spending less than $10.
That's not nothing, which is the point that those seeking to reduce the federal deficit would be quick to point out. The problem is that on the scale of government spending, it's awfully close to nothing — meaning that it's not going to do much to close that gap. If the Trump team wants to slice out $1.05 trillion annually (divvying up that $10.5 trillion number), ending funding for these three programs only gets you 0.074 percent of the way there.

The broader problem, pointed out by the New Yorker economics writer James Surowiecki on Twitter, is that cutting $1.05 trillion a year means cutting nearly all of the government's discretionary spending.

There are certain budget allocations that can't be adjusted — mostly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That's the non-discretionary spending, and it is the majority of what the government spends its money on. Discretionary spending is everything else and includes some allocations that aren't likely to be cut. For example, about half of the government's discretionary spending is on the military. Cutting all discretionary spending each year means cutting all funding for the military, which is both politically and rationally a nonstarter. The formulas for how much is spent on the non-discretionary spending can be adjusted, but Trump has pledged not to cut spending on the so-called “entitlement” programs. That, too, would be a tricky political move. ("It’s not clear whether Trump’s first budget will include reforms to Social Security or Medicare, two major drivers of the federal deficit,” Bolton reports.)

That's the bigger problem for Trump's reported budget-busting plans. Surowiecki speculates that perhaps Trump's team is including in its total cuts future spending increases that won't happen on their watch. (In other words, if you typically spend $5,000 more year over year from your household budget, holding spending flat would mean a $5,000 reduction in future spending, if you choose to view it that way.) As with so many things about the incoming administration, the details are necessarily murky.

Part of the point of “discretionary spending” is that the money is spent at the government's discretion. That means the spending is subject to the politics of Capitol Hill, and that means that programs like public broadcasting or arts spending — programs that are often political footballs — are at risk. For Trump to make cuts at the scale, this report suggests, though, even some funding popular among Republicans would likely need to be rolled back significantly.

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