“Worse Than You Think” – 8 Reality-Checks From Last Week’s CBO Report, by David Nevins

CBO reports on the government’s finances make for grim reading, but probably not grim enough. From David Nevins at ffwiley.com:

For what they’re worth and for anyone who doesn’t mind digging through the weeds, here are my comments on last week’s budget outlook from the Congressional Budget Office, which I previewed here.

  1. In the baseline scenario that’s widely reported in the media (I’ll abbreviate it BS for this post), the CBO shows federal debt held by the public soaring from 76% of GDP at fiscal year-end in 2017 to 96% of GDP at the end of the ten-year forecast horizon in 2028.
  2. The CBO also restored its alternative scenario (AS), which adjusts for certain constraints on what it’s legally allowed to include in the BS, making it more realistic than the BS. Unfortunately, the AS didn’t appear in annual reports between 2014 and 2017—in those years, the CBO highlighted areas where its BS projections were likely to be wrong but without producing an alternative. Even though it gets only a fraction of the attention given the BS, it’s good to see the AS back. It shows debt held by the public rising to 105% of GDP by the end of 2028, compared to the baseline’s 96% of GDP.
  3. But the AS is also optimistic, partly because it uses the same rosy economic assumptions as the BS and partly because it includes less “emergency” spending than the BS.
  4. As for the economic assumptions, the CBO’s unemployment rate projections are lower than they were last year in every projection year. They show an average unemployment rate for the next ten years of 4.4%, which is almost a third lower than the 6.2% historical average over the past forty years (see the chart below) and at least 0.4% lower than in any other ten-year projection the CBO has ever produced.
  5. For perspective, consider that the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows only one historical ten-year period during which the average unemployment rate was as low as the CBO projects today. That one period was from 1948 to 1957, when the unemployment rate averaged 4.4% as in the CBO’s current projection, but it’s hard to imagine the average would have been that low had the Korean War not pushed unemployment firmly below 4% for 35 consecutive months.

To continue reading:  “Worse Than You Think” – 8 Reality-Checks From Last Week’s CBO Report

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