CBO, the Wizard of Oz, and the Keynesian Fairy Tale

The Obama Administration said that the so-called stimulus was necessary so that the unemployment rate would not rise above 8 percent. Indeed, the White House warned that the joblessness rate would climb to 9 percent if lawmakers did not approve the $787 billion package. Critics responded by explaining that making government bigger would divert resources from the productive sector of the economy and hurt growth. These skeptics also noted that nations using “Keynesian” policy, such as the United States in the 1930s and Japan in the 1990s, did not generate good results. And since the unemployment rate is now above 10 percent, it certainly seems like opponents were correct.

But now the supposedly non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has jumped to the defense of the White House, estimating that the spending bill actually generated beween 600,000 and 1.6 million jobs. How can that be, you may ask, when the number of jobs has fallen by more than 3 million? The CBO neatly sidesteps that real-world concern by moving the goalposts, using a slightly more sophisticated version of Obama’s “jobs created or saved” alchemy. Their jobs-created estimate is compared to a make-believe baseline of how many jobs there would be “without the law.”

CBO estimates that in the third quarter of calendar year 2009, an additional 600,000 to 1.6 million people were employed in the United States, and real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) was 1.2 percent to 3.2 percent higher, than would have been the case in the absence of ARRA. …CBO’s current estimates differ only slightly from those CBO prepared in March 2009. At that time, CBO projected that in the third quarter of 2009, U.S. employment would be higher by 600,000 to 1.5 million people with ARRA than it would be without the law, and real GDP would be 1.1 percent to 3.0 percent higher. CBO’s new estimates reflect small revisions to earlier projections of the timing and magnitude of changes to spending and revenues under ARRA. …Economic output and employment in the spring and summer of 2009 were lower than CBO had projected at the beginning of the year. But in CBO’s judgment, that outcome reflects greater-than-projected weakness in the underlying economy rather than lower-than-expected effects of ARRA.

Needless to say, this means there is no objective benchmark. The unemployment rate could jump to 15 percent and total job losses could reach 10 million, but CBO would continue to say, for all intents and purposes, that the results from their Keynesian model are more important than any real-world numbers. This is the fiscal policy version of the Wizard of Oz, and we’re supposed to ignore reality just as Dorothy and friends were supposed to ignore the man behind the curtain.

To be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong with CBO’s methodology. Economic analysis frequently requires people to make assumptions about how the world would behave with or without a certain policy. So the real question is whether Keynesian economics makes sense from a theoretical perspective, whether there is any supporting evidence, and whether there are more compelling alternatives. Click the links and decide for yourself.