WASHINGTON — There is something profoundly timid about President Obama's proposed $3.778 trillion budget for 2014.
Stripped of boasts about "investments" for the future and a responsible "balance" between deficit reduction and economic growth, the budget is a status-quo document.
It lets existing trends and policies run their course, meaning that Obama would allow higher spending on the elderly to overwhelm most other government programs.
This is not "liberal" or "conservative" so much as politically expedient and lazy.
The trends are clear.
From 2014 to 2023, the administration projects annual spending on Social Security to rise from $860 billion to $1.4 trillion, assuming its proposal for altering the inflation adjustment of benefits is adopted.
Over the same years, annual Medicare and Medicaid spending would go from $828 billion to $1.4 trillion.
Meanwhile, defense spending would barely rise from $618 billion to $631 billion. Non-defense discretionary spending (a catchall covering everything from Head Start to the weather service) would increase from $624 billion to $647 billion.
But these are all "nominal" dollars; they don't account for inflation.
When the figures are adjusted for price and population changes, shifts are more pronounced. (All figures are from Obama's budget.)
Defense and non-defense "discretionary" spending decline by 22 percent from 2014 to 2023. ("Defense News" reported last week that the Air Force has sharply cut pilot training; there will be more of this.)
Social Security rises 25 percent, Medicare and Medicaid 27 percent.
What's happening is that savings from shrinking defense and discretionary programs are financing expanded spending for the elderly. As a share of the economy (gross domestic product), non-elderly and non-health programs are rapidly eroding.
In 2012, defense and domestic discretionary programs represented 8.3 percent of GDP; by 2023, the administration projects their share at 4.9 percent of GDP.
This can't continue indefinitely, because — at some point — these programs become completely ineffective or disappear.
But Obama remains unwilling to grapple with basic questions posed by an aging population, high health costs and persistent deficits.