Tag: cbo

With Tax Increases Looming, CBO Does About-Face and Frets about Deficits and Debt

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the Congressional Budget Office follows a predictable pattern of endorsing policies that result in bigger government. During the debate about the so-called stimulus, for instance, CBO said more spending and higher deficits would be good for the economy. It then followed up that analysis by claiming that the faux stimulus worked even though millions of jobs were lost. Then, during the Obamacare debate, CBO actually claimed that a giant new entitlement program would reduce deficits.

Now that tax increases are the main topic (because of the looming expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax bills), CBO has done a 180-degree turn and has published a document discussing the negative consequences of too much deficits and debt. A snippet:

[P]ersistent deficits and continually mounting debt would have several negative economic consequences for the United States. Some of those consequences would arise gradually: A growing portion of people’s savings would go to purchase government debt rather than toward investments in productive capital goods such as factories and computers; that “crowding out” of investment would lead to lower output and incomes than would otherwise occur.

…[A] growing level of federal debt would also increase the probability of a sudden fiscal crisis, during which investors would lose confidence in the government’s ability to manage its budget, and the government would thereby lose its ability to borrow at affordable rates. …If the United States encountered a fiscal crisis, the abrupt rise in interest rates would reflect investors’ fears that the government would renege on the terms of its existing debt or that it would increase the supply of money to finance its activities or pay creditors and thereby boost inflation.

At some point, even Republicans should be smart enough to figure out that this game is rigged. Then again, the GOP controlled Congress for a dozen years and failed to reform either CBO or its counterpart on the revenue side, the Joint Committee on Taxation (which is infamous for its assumption that tax policy has no impact on overall economic performance).

Dear Health Care Journos, There’s Nothing Free about ObamaCare

The Obama administration announced yesterday its plans for implementing ObamaCare’s mandate that consumers purchase first-dollar coverage for preventive services.  The press release reads (emphasis added):

Administration Announces Regulations Requiring New Health Insurance Plans to Provide Free Preventive Care

Of course the administration would emphasize that consumers will pay nothing for these services at the moment of service, and elide the fact that this mandate will increase their health insurance premiums. The administration’s use of the word “free” is what we call spin.

What’s surprising–and more than a little disappointing–is that journalists and headline writers at major media organizations would repeat the administration’s spin, as if the government really is giving away free stuff:

  • New York Times: “Health Plans Must Provide Some Tests at No Cost…free coverage…free screenings…free preventive services…”
  • Los Angeles Times: “Healthcare law offers preventive care at no cost”
  • Politico: “New rules: Free preventive care…free under new federal guidelines.”
  • Reuters: “Healthcare overhaul mandates free preventive care…no extra cost to consumers…Medicare patients will have access to free prevention services…”
  • Wall Street Journal: “White House Unveils Free Preventative Services…services that will be free to consumers…free preventive care…free preventive care…”

Each use of “free” and “no cost” in these excerpts is false, even within its original context.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Everything has a cost.  No government can change that.  Mandating that insurers cover certain services does not magically make them free.  Consumers still pay, just in the form of higher health insurance premiums and lower wages.

The Wall Street Journal (in paragraph six), The New York Times (paragraph seven), Reuters (paragraph 16), and the Los Angeles Times (paragraph 19 or so) do mention that consumers will pay for this mandate in the form of higher premiums–but that doesn’t make the untrue stuff true.  It just makes the article internally inconsistent.  Moreover, the Los Angeles Times incorrectly suggests that the higher premiums would be offset by lower out-of-pocket spending.  (The change in premiums will be larger due to moral hazard and administrative costs.)  And Reuters mentions higher premiums only vaguely, and as if insurers would bear that cost.  Each article also repeats the administration’s spin that spending more on preventive care would reduce health care costs, without mentioning that the Congressional Budget Office and other health care researchers dispute that claim.

Journalists need to be very careful with terms like “free” and “no cost.”

Social Security in the Red

Social Security is officially in the red.  The New York Times reports that the system will pay out more than it takes in this year.  Explains the Times:

The bursting of the real estate bubble and the ensuing recession have hurt jobs, home prices and now Social Security.

This year, the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, an important threshold it was not expected to cross until at least 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, said that while the Congressional projection would probably be borne out, the change would have no effect on benefits in 2010 and retirees would keep receiving their checks as usual.

The problem, he said, is that payments have risen more than expected during the downturn, because jobs disappeared and people applied for benefits sooner than they had planned. At the same time, the program’s revenue has fallen sharply, because there are fewer paychecks to tax.

Analysts have long tried to predict the year when Social Security would pay out more than it took in because they view it as a tipping point — the first step of a long, slow march to insolvency, unless Congress strengthens the program’s finances.

The crisis is now, since the vaunted “trust fund” is filled with non-recourse government bonds–essentially worthless pieces of paper.  There’s no there there when it comes to financing future benefits.  Either payments have to come down or taxes have to go up, unless we adopt real reform centered around personal accounts.  And the latter course seems ever more distant after Congress voted to expand federal control over every Americans’ health care.

My Big Fat Greek Budget

Since we’re already depressed by the enactment of Obamacare, we may as well wallow in misery by looking at some long-term budget numbers. The chart below, which is based on the Congressional Budget Office’s long-run estimates, shows that federal government spending will climb to 45 percent of GDP if we believe CBO’s more optimistic “baseline” estimate. If we prefer the less optimistic “alternative” estimate, the burden of federal government spending will climb to 67 percent of economic output. These dismal numbers are driven by two factors, an aging population and entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. For all intents and purposes, America is on a path to become a European-style welfare state.

If these numbers don’t depress you enough, here are a couple of additional observations to push you over the edge. These CBO estimates were produced last year, so they don’t count the cost of Obamacare. And as Michael Cannon repeatedly has observed, Obamacare will cost much more than the official estimates concocted by CBO. And speaking of estimates, the long-run numbers in the chart are almost certainly too optimistic since CBO’s methodology naively assumes that a rising burden of government will have no negative impact on the economy’s growth rate. Last but not least, the data above only measures federal spending. State and local government budgets will consume at least another 15 percent of GDP, so even using the optimistic baseline, total government spending will be about 60 percent of GDP, higher than every European nation, including France, Greece, and Sweden. And if we add state and local spending on top of the “alternative” baseline, then we’re in uncharted territory where perhaps Cuba and North Korea would be the most appropriate analogies.

So what do we do? There’s no sure-fire solution. Congressman Paul Ryan has a reform plan to reduce long-run federal spending to less than 20 percent of GDP. This “Roadmap” plan is excellent, though it is marred by the inclusion of a value-added tax. Bill Shipman of CarriageOaks Partners put forth a very interesting proposal in a Washington Times column to make the federal government rely on states for tax revenue. And I’ve been an avid proponent of tax competition as a strategy to curtail the greed of the political class since it is difficult to finance redistribution if labor and capital can escape to jurisdictions with better tax law. Any other suggestions?

CBO: ObamaCare Would Increase Deficits by $59 Billion

Of course, it depends on what the meaning of “the Obama health plan” is.

If the Obama plan is understood not to include the $208 billion Medicare “doc fix” that the House removed from its bill to pass separately, and if the Obama plan would be sealed in an impenetrable vault within the National Archives, never again to be touched by God or man, then yes, the Congressional Budget Office predicts the Obama plan would reduce federal deficits by $138 billion over the next 10 years and by maybe one-half percent of GDP in the 10 years after that.

If, however, the doc fix is actually part of the Obama plan, and that law would be subject to normal political forces  plus the new political dynamics the law would create, then the CBO predicts the Obama plan would increase federal deficits by $59 billion over the next 10 years and maybe one-quarter percent of GDP in the subsequent decade.

So really, the Obama plan’s impact on the deficit comes down to which one of those scenarios best describes the Obama plan, and which one is a partisan fantasy.

Lies, Damned Lies, and CBO Estimates

Washington is buzzing with news that the Congressional Budget Office has a new cost estimate for the President’s proposal to further expand the federal government’s control over the health care system. The White House is doubtlessly pleased because the takeaway message, as blindly regurgitated by the Associated Press, is that a giant new entitlement program is going to “drive down red ink:”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the legislation would reduce the federal deficit by $138 billion over its first 10 years, and continue to drive down the red ink thereafter. Democratic leaders said the deficit would be cut $1.2 trillion in the second decade - and Obama called it the biggest reduction since the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton put the federal budget on a path to surplus.

Michael Cannon already has explained that the cost estimate is fraudulent because of what it leaves out, so let me explain why it is fraudulent because of what it includes. The CBO has a very dismal track record of getting the numbers wrong, in part because there is no attempt to measure how a bigger burden of government has negative macroeconomic effects, but also because the number crunchers do a poor job of measuring the degree to which people (recipients, health care providers, state and local politicians, etc.) will modify their behavior to become eligible for other people’s money. The problem is compounded by similar mistakes for revenue estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation, which (like CBO) makes no attempt to capture macroeconomic effects and has a less-than-stellar history of predicting behavioral responses.

If the legislation passes, we will get more spending, more taxes, and more debt. Equally troubling, we will get more dependency. That’s good for Washington and bad for the country.

Keynesian Economics and the Wizard of Oz

When Dorothy and her friends finally reach Oz, they present themselves to the almighty Wizard, only to eventually discover that he is just an illusion maintained by a charlatan hiding behind a curtain. This seems eerily akin to to the state of Keynesian economics. It does not matter that Keynesianism isn’t working for Obama. It does not matter that it didn’t work for Bush, or for Japan in the 1990s, or for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. In the ultimate triumph of theory over reality, the Keynesians say all that matters is the macroeconomic model behind the curtain showing that more government spending leads to more jobs and growth. Consider the recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which claimed that Obama’s stimulus created at least one million jobs. As Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation noted:

CBO’s calculations are not based on actually observing the economy’s recent performance. Rather, they used an economic model that was programmed to assume that stimulus spending automatically creates jobs — thus guaranteeing their result. …The problem here is obvious. Once CBO decided to assume that every dollar of government spending increased GDP…, its conclusion that the stimulus saved jobs was pre-ordained.

But surely this can’t be true, you may be thinking. Our public servants in Washington would not make important policy decisions based on a model that automatically produces a certain result, would they? Peter Suderman of Reason pulls aside the curtain:

[T]hose reports rely on assumption-packed models that effectively predetermine their outcomes; what they say, in essence, is that the stimulus worked because we assume it did. …That’s especially true when estimating government spending’s productive effects, which is accomplished by plugging numbers into a formula that assumes that government spending produces a multiplier—an increased return for every government dollar spent. In other words, it extrapolates from how much money is put in rather than from what has actually come out. And it does so using a formula that dictates that if money is put in, even more money will come out. According to the CBO’s estimates, depending on how the money is spent, one dollar of government spending can produce total economic activity of up to $2.50. What a deal! …[F]or all practical purposes, the same multipliers that were used to predict how many jobs would be created are being used to estimate how many jobs have been created.

Interestingly, CBO’s analysis is completely schizophrenic. Its short-run budget numbers are based on free-lunch Keynesianism that assumes deficit-financed government spending boosts growth, while its long-run numbers are driven by an assumption that government borrowing is terrible for growth (which is why CBO actually claims higher taxes boost economic output — see, for example, Figure 3 of this CBO analysis). It is impossible to know whether the people at CBO actually believe their own work, or whether they are simply trying to please their political paymasters by producing results that (conveniently) match up with political preferences for more spending today and higher taxes tomorrow. You can draw your own conclusions, but keep in mind that CBO is now making the absurd claim that a giant new healthcare entitlement will reduce budget deficits.

But I digress. Let’s now give a defense of the Keynesian model. The folks at CBO and other Keynesians who publish estimates that inevitably turn out to be wrong (Mark Zandi comes to mind) will claim that they are right because they are predicting results compared to what otherwise would have happened. So when they claim that Obama’s so-called stimulus created jobs, they are really saying that the economy would have lost even more jobs if the government didn’t spend all that money. The problem with this approach is that there is no independent benchmark, but this is not why Keynesianism is wrong. Indeed, most of the economic profession relies on this kind of “counterfactual” analysis. Instead, the problem with Keynesianism is that it fails the empirical test. The Keynesians may be good at constructing models, but that doesn’t mean much if the models don’t match the real world. Here’s what Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise said in recent congressional testimony:

[M]ost economists learned in graduate school that models like those relied upon most heavily by the CBO provide nonsensical results. The reason the original large scale Keynesian Macro forecasting models were discarded by most of the profession is that they make a simple logical error in assuming that individuals do not change their behavior based on the expectation of future policy. …Professor Barro has been one of the primary contributors to the macroeconomic time series literature that has tried to estimate effects from observed economic data, rather than assume affects, as is done by the Keynesian models. …Barro’s analysis is based on econometric evidence, a reliance on experience. The CBO analysis is based almost exclusively on speculation within the context of Keynesian Macro models that were discredited decisively in the 1970s. …Dating at least back to the seminal work of Nelson (1972), economists have known that the empirical time series approach significantly outperforms macroeconomic models in forecasting competitions. …Ashley (1988) compares data-based time series forecasts to those from the large macro forecasters and concludes not only that the time series approach is superior, but that the macro forecasts were so bad that, “most of these forecasts are so inaccurate that simple extrapolation of historical trends is superior for forecasts more than a couple of quarters ahead.” …Finally, one should note that this literature, combined with an earlier public finance literature, raises questions concerning the welfare gain associated with short-term increases in spending. …Browning (1987) finds that the marginal cost ranges widely, between 10% and 300%. Thus, the welfare costs of paying the bill may be greater than the short-term boost to the economy from the most optimistic estimates. This literature would be consistent with Barro’s analysis that suggests the stimulus makes us worse off in the long run.