Tag: congressional budget office

For the Sake of Intellectual Integrity, Republicans Should Not Cite the CBO When Arguing against Obama’s Proposed Fiscal-Cliff Tax Hike

I’ve commented before how the fiscal fight in Europe is a no-win contest between advocates of Keynesian deficit spending (the so-called “growth” camp, if you can believe that) and proponents of higher taxes (the “austerity” camp, which almost never seems to mean spending restraint).

That’s a left-vs-left battle, which makes me think it would be a good idea if they fought each other to the point of exhaustion, thus enabling forward movement on a pro-growth agenda of tax reform and reductions in the burden of government spending.

That’s a nice thought, but it probably won’t happen in Europe since almost all politicians in places such as Germany and France are statists. And it might never happen in the United States if lawmakers pay attention to the ideologically biased work of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

CBO already has demonstrated that it’s willing to take both sides of this left-v-left fight, and the bureaucrats just doubled down on that biased view in a new report on the fiscal cliff.

For all intents and purposes, the CBO has a slavish devotion to Keynesian theory in the short run, which means more spending supposedly is good for growth. But CBO also believes that higher taxes improve growth in the long run by ostensibly leading to lower deficits. Here’s what it says will happen if automatic budget cuts are cancelled.

Eliminating the automatic enforcement procedures established by the Budget Control Act of 2011 that are scheduled to reduce both discretionary and mandatory spending starting in January and maintaining Medicare’s payment rates for physicians’ services at the current level would boost real GDP by about three-quarters of a percent by the end of 2013.

Not that we should be surprised by this silly conclusion. The CBO repeatedly claimed that Obama’s faux stimulus would boost growth. Heck, CBO even claimed Obama’s spending binge was successful after the fact, even though it was followed by record levels of unemployment.

But I think the short-run Keynesianism is not CBO’s biggest mistake. In the long-run, CBO wants us to believe that higher tax burdens translate into more growth. Check out this passage, which expresses CBO’s view the economy will be weaker 10 years from now if the tax burden is not increased.

…the agency has estimated the effect on output that would occur in 2022 under the alternative fiscal scenario, which incorporates the assumption that several of the policies are maintained indefinitely. CBO estimates that in 2022, on net, the policies included in the alternative fiscal scenario would reduce real GDP by 0.4 percent and real gross national product (GNP) by 1.7 percent. …the larger budget deficits and rapidly growing federal debt would hamper national saving and investment and thus reduce output and income.

In other words, CBO reflexively makes two bold assumption. First, it assumes higher tax rates generate more money. Second, the bureaucrats assume that politicians will use any new money for deficit reduction. Yeah, good luck with that.

To be fair, the CBO report does have occasional bits of accurate analysis. The authors acknowledge that both taxes and spending can create adverse incentives for productive behavior.

…increases in marginal tax rates on labor would tend to reduce the amount of labor supplied to the economy, whereas increases in revenues of a similar magnitude from broadening the tax base would probably have a smaller negative impact or even a positive impact on the supply of labor. Similarly, cutting government benefit payments would generally strengthen people’s incentive to work and save.

But these small concessions do not offset the deeply flawed analysis that dominates the report.

But that analysis shouldn’t be a surprise. The CBO has a track record of partisan and ideological work.

While I’m irritated about CBO’s bias (and the fact that it’s being financed with my tax dollars), that’s not what has me worked up. The reason for this post is to grouse and gripe about the fact that some people are citing this deeply flawed analysis to oppose Obama’s pursuit of class warfare tax policy.

Why would some Republican politicians and conservative commentators cite a publication that promotes higher spending in the short run and higher taxes in the long run? Well, because it also asserts - based on Keynesian analysis - that higher taxes will hurt the economy in the short run.

…extending the tax reductions originally enacted in 2001, 2003, and 2009 and extending all other expiring provisions, including those that expired at the end of 2011, except for the payroll tax cut—and indexing the alternative minimum tax (AMT) for inflation beginning in 2012 would boost real GDP by a little less than 1½ percent by the end of 2013.

At the risk of sounding like a doctrinaire purist, it is unethical to cite inaccurate analysis in support of a good policy.

Consider this example. If some academic published a study in favor of the flat tax and it later turned out that the data was deliberately or accidentally wrong, would it be right to cite that research when arguing for tax reform? I hope everyone would agree that the answer is no.

Yet that’s precisely what is happening when people cite CBO’s shoddy work to argue against tax increases.

It’s very much akin to the pro-defense Republicans who use Keynesian arguments about jobs when promoting a larger defense budget.

To make matters worse, it’s not as if opponents lack other arguments that are intellectually honest.

So why, then, would anybody sink to the depths necessary to cite the Congressional Budget Office?

New CBO Numbers Confirm - Once Again - that Modest Spending Restraint Can Balance the Budget

The Congressional Budget Office has just released the update to its Economic and Budget Outlook.

There are several things from this new report that probably deserve commentary, including a new estimate that unemployment will “remain above 8 percent until 2014.”

This certainly doesn’t reflect well on the Obama White House, which claimed that flushing $800 billion down the Washington rathole would prevent the joblessness rate from ever climbing above 8 percent.

Not that I have any faith in CBO estimates. After all, those bureaucrats still embrace Keynesian economics.

But this post is not about the backwards economics at CBO. Instead, I want to look at the new budget forecast and see what degree of fiscal discipline is necessary to get rid of red ink.

The first thing I did was to look at CBO’s revenue forecast, which can be found in table 1-2. But CBO assumes the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts will expire at the end of 2012, as well as other automatic tax hikes for 2013. So I went to table 1-8 and got the projections for those tax provisions and backed them out of the baseline forecast.

That gave me a no-tax-hike forecast for the next 10 years, which shows that revenues will grow, on average, slightly faster than 6.6 percent annually. Or, for those who like actual numbers, revenues will climb from a bit over $2.3 trillion this year to almost $4.4 trillion in 2021.

Something else we know from CBO’s budget forecast is that spending this year (fiscal year 2011) is projected to be a bit below $3.6 trillion.

So if we know that tax revenues will be $4.4 trillion in 2021 (and that’s without any tax hike), and we know that spending is about $3.6 trillion today, then even those of us who hate math can probably figure out that we can balance the budget by 2021 so long as government spending does not increase by more than $800 billion during the next 10 years.

Yes, you read that correctly. We can increase spending and still balance the budget. This chart shows how quickly the budget can be balanced with varying degrees of fiscal discipline.

The numbers show that a spending freeze balances the budget by 2017. Red ink disappears by 2019 if spending is allowed to grow 1 percent each year. And the deficit disappears by 2021 if spending is limited to 2 percent annual growth.

Not that these numbers are a surprise. I got similar results after last year’s update, and also earlier this year when the Economic and Budget Outlook was published.

Some of you may be thinking this can’t possibly be right. After all, you hear politicians constantly assert that we need tax hikes because that’s the only way to balance the budget without “draconian” and “savage” budget cuts.

But as I’ve explained before, this demagoguery is based on the dishonest Washington practice of assuming that spending should increase every year, and then claiming that a budget cut takes place anytime spending does not rise as fast as previously planned.

In reality, balancing the budget is very simple. Modest spending restraint is all that’s needed. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, particularly in a corrupt town dominated by interest groups, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and politicians.

But if we takes tax hikes off the table and somehow cap the growth of spending, it can be done. This video explains.

And we know other countries have succeeded with fiscal restraint. As is explained in this video.

Or we can acquiesce to the Washington establishment and raise taxes and impose fake spending cuts. But that hasn’t worked so well for Greece and other European welfare states, so I wouldn’t suggest that approach.

Debunking the Left’s Tax Burden Deception

I testified yesterday before the Joint Economic Committee about budget process reform. As part of the Q&A session after the testimony, one of the Democratic members made a big deal about the fact that federal tax revenues today are “only” consuming about 15 percent of GDP. And since the long-run average is about 18 percent of GDP, we are all supposed to conclude that a substantial tax hike is needed as part of what President Obama calls a “balanced approach” to red ink.

But it’s not just statist politicians making this argument. After making fun of his assertion that Obama is a conservative, I was hoping to ignore Bruce Bartlett for a while, but I noticed that he has a piece on the New York Times website also implying that America’s fiscal problems are the result of federal tax revenues dropping far below the long-run average of 18 percent of GDP.

In a previous post, I noted that federal taxes as a share of gross domestic product were at their lowest level in generations. The Congressional Budget Office expects revenue to be just 14.8 percent of G.D.P. this year; the last year it was lower was 1950, when revenue amounted to 14.4 percent of G.D.P. But revenue has been below 15 percent of G.D.P. since 2009, and the last time we had three years in a row when revenue as a share of G.D.P. was that low was 1941 to 1943. Revenue has averaged 18 percent of G.D.P. since 1970 and a little more than that in the postwar era.

To be fair, both the politician at the JEC hearing and Bruce are correct in claiming that tax revenues this year are considerably below the historical average.

But they are both being a bit deceptive, either deliberately or accidentally, in that they fail to show the CBO forecast for the rest of the decade. But I understand why they cherry-picked data. The chart below shows, rather remarkably, that tax revenues (the fuschia line) are expected to be back at the long-run average (the blue line) in just three years. And that’s even if the Bush tax cuts are made permanent and the alternative minimum tax is frozen.

It’s also worth noting the black line, which shows how the tax burden will climb if the Bush tax cuts expire (and also if millions of new taxpayers are swept into the AMT). In that “current law” scenario, the tax burden jumps considerably above the long-run average in just two years. Keep in mind, though, that government forecasters assume that higher tax rates have no adverse impact on economic performance, so it’s quite likely that neither tax revenues nor GDP would match the forecast.

CBO Report Reveals Spending Disaster

New projections from the Congressional Budget Office show that without reforms rising federal spending will fundamental reshape America’s economy, and not in a good way. Under the CBO’s “alternative fiscal scenario,” the federal government will consume an 86 percent greater share of the economy in 2035 than it did a decade ago (33.9 percent of GDP compared to 18.2 percent).

The CBO report and many centrist budget wonks focus more on the problem of rising federal debt than on rising spending. As a result, many wonks clamor for a “balanced” package of spending cuts and tax increases to solve our fiscal problems. But CBO projections show that the long-term debt problem is not a balanced one—it is caused by historic increases in spending, not shortages of revenues.

This chart shows CBO’s alternative scenario projections, which assume no major fiscal policy changes. All recent tax cuts are extended and entitlement programs are not reformed.

Let’s look at federal revenues first (blue bars). In President Clinton’s last year of 2001, revenues were abnormally high at 19.5 percent of GDP as a result of the booming economy. Over the last four decades, federal revenues as share of GDP have fluctuated around about 18 percent of GDP. The tech boom a decade ago helped generate large capital gains realizations. CBO data show that capital gains tax revenues were $100 billion in 2001, or 1 percent of GDP (see page 85). By contrast, the CBO expects capital gains taxes to be $48 billion in 2011, or just 0.3 percent of GDP (see page 93).

In 2011, revenues are way down because of the poor economy. Some people complain that the Bush tax cuts drained the Treasury, but note that revenues were 18.2 percent of GDP in 2006 and 18.5 percent in 2007, when the economy was growing and the Bush cuts were in place.

Looking ahead, the CBO projects that with all current tax cuts in place and AMT relief extended, revenues will rise to 18.4 percent of GDP by 2021, or a bit above the normal levels of recent decades. For 2035, the CBO assumes that revenues would be fixed at the same 18.4 percent, but their discussion reveals that “real bracket creep” would actually keep pushing up revenues as a share of the economy beyond 2021.

In sum, CBO projections reveal no shortage of revenues. The problem is on the spending side, as the red bars in the chart illustrate. As a result of the Bush/Obama spending boom, federal outlays soared from 18.2 under President Clinton to 24.1 percent this year. With no reforms to entitlement programs, outlays will be 33.9 percent of GDP by 2035, which is 86 percent higher than the Clinton level.

By the way, the CBO nets Medicare premiums out of outlays, which makes spending look a little smaller than it really is. Using gross Medicare spending, total federal outlays will be 35 percent of GDP by 2035.

Also note that CBO data (and other U.S. government data) low-ball government spending in other ways compared to OECD measurement standards. The OECD puts federal/state/local government spending in the United States at 41 percent of GDP in 2011. More than four out of ten dollars we earn are already being gobbled up by our governments.

If the federal government grows by 10 percentage points of GDP by 2035 per CBO, American governments will be consuming more than half of everything produced in the nation.

To fix the problem, see here.

CBO’s Long-Term Budget Outlook

The Congressional Budget Office released the latest edition of its annual forecast of where the federal government’s budget is headed. The numbers are new but the message is the same: the budget is on an unsustainable path. According to the CBO’s more politically-realistic “alternative scenario,” federal debt as a share of GDP will hit 109 percent in 2021 and would approach 190 percent in 2035.

For those mistaken souls who believe that merely eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse” in government programs can solve the problem, the CBO has news for you:

In the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO’s) long-term projections of spending, growth in noninterest spending as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) is attributable entirely to increases in spending on several large mandatory programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and (to a lesser extent) insurance subsidies that will be provided through the health insurance exchanges established by the March 2010 health care legislation. The health care programs are the main drivers of that growth; they are responsible for 80 percent of the total projected rise in spending on those mandatory programs over the next 25 years.

Others believe that “tax cuts for the rich” are the source of the problem. But according to the CBO’s alternative scenario, if the Bush tax cuts are extended and the Alternative Minimum Tax continues to be patched, federal revenues as a share of GDP will still exceed the post-war average by the decade’s end. Under the CBO’s standard baseline, which assumes that those policies will not be continued, federal revenues as a share of GDP will go zooming by the historic average. That might be good for politicians, bureaucrats, and other “tax eaters,” but it wouldn’t be good for the country’s economic welfare.

The problem is clearly spending and the GOP has rightly made spending cuts a key condition to lifting the debt ceiling. The magic number being reported is $2 trillion in cuts. That sounds like a lot of money – and it is – but it’s likely that those cuts are to be achieved over 10 years. According to the CBO’s most recent estimates, the federal government will spend almost $46 trillion over the next 10 years. And as Chris Edwards has been repeatedly warning (see here, here, and here), there’s a possibility that the cuts will be of the “phony” variety.

Federal Spending: Ryan vs. Obama

House Budget Committee Chairman, Paul Ryan, introduced his budget resolution for fiscal 2012 and beyond today entitled “The Path to Prosperity.” The plan would cut some spending programs, reduce top income tax rates, and reform Medicare and Medicaid. The following two charts compare spending levels under Chairman Ryan’s plan and President Obama’s recent budget (as scored by the Congressional Budget Office).

Figure 1 shows that spending rises more slowly over the next decade under Ryan’s plan than Obama’s plan. But spending rises substantially under both plans—between 2012 and 2021, spending rises 34 percent under Ryan and 55 percent under Obama.

Figure 2 compares Ryan’s and Obama’s proposed spending levels at the end of the 10-year budget window in 2021. The figure indicates where Ryan finds his budget savings. Going from the largest spending category to the smallest:

  • Ryan doesn’t provide specific Social Security cuts, instead proposing a budget mechanism to force Congress to take action on the program. It is disappointing that his plan doesn’t include common sense reforms such raising the retirement age.
  • Ryan finds modest Medicare savings in the short term, but the big savings occur beyond 10 years when his “premium support” reform is fully implemented. I would rather see Ryan’s Medicare reforms kick in sooner, which after all are designed to improve quality and efficiency in the health care system.
  • Ryan adopts Obama’s proposed defense (security) savings, but larger cuts are called for. After all, defense spending has doubled over the last decade, even excluding the costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Ryan includes modest cuts to nonsecurity discretionary spending. Larger cuts are needed, including termination of entire agencies. See DownsizingGovernment.org.
  • Ryan makes substantial cuts to other entitlements, such as farm subsidies. Bravo!
  • Ryan would turn Medicaid and food stamps into block grants. That is an excellent direction for reform, and it would allow Congress to steadily reduce spending and ultimately devolve these programs to the states.
  • Ryan would repeal the costly 2010 health care law. Bravo!

To summarize, Ryan’s budget plan would make crucial reforms to federal health care programs, and it would limit the size of the federal government over the long term. However, his plan would be improved by adopting more cuts and eliminations of agencies in short term, such as those proposed by Senator Rand Paul.

Bailout Coming for the Postal Service?

The U.S. Postal Service is in financial trouble. Undermined by advances in electronic communication, weighed down by excessive labor costs and operationally straitjacketed by Congress, the government’s mail monopoly is running on fumes and faces large unfunded liabilities. Socialism apparently has its limits.

While the Europeans continue to shift away from government-run postal monopolies toward market liberalization, policymakers in the United States still have their heads stuck in the twentieth century. That means looking for an easy way out, which in Washington usually means a bailout.

Self-interested parties – including the postal unions, mailers, and postal management – have coalesced around the notion that the U.S. Treasury owes the USPS somewhere around $50-$75 billion. (Of course, “U.S. Treasury” is just another word for “taxpayers.”)  Policymakers with responsibility for overseeing the USPS have introduced legislation that would require the Treasury to credit it with the money.

Explaining the background and validity of this claim is very complicated. Fortunately, Michael Schuyler, a seasoned expert on the USPS for the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation, has produced such a paper.

At issue is whether the USPS “unfairly” overpaid on pension obligations for particular employees under the long defunct Civil Service Retirement System. The USPS’s inspector-general has concluded that the USPS is owed the money. The Office of Personnel Management, which administers the pensions of federal government employees, and its inspector-general have concluded otherwise. Again, it’s complicated and Schuyler’s paper should be read to understand the ins and outs.

Therefore, I’ll simply conclude with Schuyler’s take on what the transfer would mean for taxpayers:

Given the frighteningly large federal deficit and the mushrooming federal debt, a $50-$75 billion credit to the Postal Service and debit to the U.S. Treasury will be a difficult sell, politically and economically. Although some advocates of a $50-$70 billion transfer assert it would be “an internal transfer of surplus pension funds” that would allow the Postal Service to fund promised retiree health benefits “at no cost to taxpayers,” the reality is that the transfer would shift more obligations to Treasury, which would increase the already heavy burden on taxpayers, who ultimately pay Treasury’s bills. (The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) prepares the official cost estimates for bills before Congress. Judging by how it has scored some earlier postal bills, CBO would undoubtedly report that the transfer would increase the federal budget deficit.) For those attempting to reduce the federal deficit, the transfer would be a $50-$70 billion setback.

Sounds like a bailout to me.

See this Cato essay for more on the U.S. Postal Service and why policymakers should be moving toward privatization.