Visualizing the Budget

Yesterday’s New York Times featured a nice visualization of President Obama’s proposed 2011 budget.

Even though such visualizations have become somewhat common, seeing it reminded me of my days at Creative Labs, circa 1996-1998. It was there that my manager first introduced me to Edward Tufte’s work on data visualization, and to Marimekko Charts.

The Mekko Chart has long been used by strategy consultants. It allows data to be depicted along two dimensions simultaneously. For example, market segments are often arrayed along the x-axis, with the width of each column corresponding to the dollar size of a segment. Within each segment/column the market share of individual brands is then displayed with respect to the y-axis. These days companies such as Mekko Graphics and think-cell offer add-ons which make it easy to generate Mekko charts in PowerPoint, or with a bit of effort you can do it yourself. An example of a Mekko Chart is below. (Curiously, as of today there is no entry in Wikipedia related to Marimekko Charts.)

A Marimekko chart. Source: Mekko Graphics

An example of a Marimekko chart. Source: Mekko Graphics

Although Mekko charts are an elegant solution for depicting a handful of market segments and competitors, their usability starts to breakdown when faced with significantly more data, such as the S&P 500. And visualizing the stock market was precisely the problem Martin Wattenberg had in mind when he created the technique that ended up being used in yesterday’s New York Times budget visualization.

Starting with Shneiderman’s treemap technique (which is essentially what drives a Mekko chart) Wattenberg developed an algorithm that 1) employs both vertical and horizontal partitions at each level of hierarchy, resulting in a series of more readable rectangles, and 2) groups these rectangles based on their similarity to one another, enhancing the reader’s ability to make sense of any resulting patterns across rectangles. (For more details see his 1999 paper on Visualizing the Stock Market.)

The result was the 1998 introduction of the SmartMoney Map of the Market as a way of visualizing the S&P 500 at a glance. (Note: Wattenberg credits Marc Frons and Joon Yu as collaborators, and indicates “that several others, including Jarke van Wijk, independently invented similar algorithms around the same time.”)

SmartMoney Map of the Market

Back to the budget itself, a couple things standout. First, there is the total: $3.69 trillion. Second, for all the fighting about healthcare, what’s astounding are the four bigger budgetary items that we’re not talking about: #1) national defense, #2) social security, #3) medicare, and #4) income security. These 4 items account for $2.53 trillion of the budget. Worse, if you toggle the “hide mandatory spending” button, what becomes apparent is just how few options there are for cutting the budget. Whereas virtually all of the national defense budget is discretionary, less than a quarter of the income security budget, and virtually none of the social security and medicare budgets are discretionary. In short, healthcare spending is neither the of our budget woes, nor can it possibly be the cure. We could eliminate healthcare entirely, or double our spending on healthcare, and the consequences overall would be modest, if not meaningless. To reduce the healthcare debate to a debate over economics is just that, reductionist. The recourse to economics has to be understood as essentially a smokescreen, evidence of an unwillingness to seriously engage with the issue.

Furthermore, the real problems with the budget are clearly related to national defense and social security. These two programs account for 40% of spending. And these are two programs that no one in Washington — Democrat or Republican — seems to be talking about fixing. So while I agree that we need healthcare reform, even more urgently needed are national defense reform and social security reform. For starters, the budget suggests America can no longer afford to be warmakers and peacekeepers for the world. We need to let the world fight its own battles and make its own peace. I suspect most of the world would be happy with that outcome too. Likewise, it appears that the 20th century concept of retirement and the government’s role in it needs to be entirely reworked for the 21st century. Hitting 65 years of age can no longer been seen as the magical age at which bliss and nirvana are yours by birthright. When exactly did retirement at 65 become part of the American dream, as if it were a Constitutional right? Perhaps linking the retirement age with life expectancy is a first step towards reforming social security.

The third thing that stands out is one thing we are not spending money on. The total energy budget is only $10 billion, or approximately 0.2% of the total budget. Now granted these figures do not include the Department of Energy’s $17.7 billion budget, which is grouped together with the national defense budget. But even adding in the DOE brings total federal spending on energy to just 0.7% of the total budget. Considering the well-known linkage between energy and GDP combined with the growing likelihood of a carbon constrained economy, and it seems clear that energy is vital to any U.S. recovery.

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