Making It Up to Push Deficit Reduction: Washington Post Version

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Thursday, 23 June 2011 05:08

The Washington Post piece on the new long-term budget projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) began:

"The national debt will exceed the size of the entire U.S. economy by 2021 — and balloon to nearly 200 percent of GDP within 25 years — without dramatic cuts to federal health and retirement programs or steep tax increases, congressional budget analysts said Wednesday."

Actually, this is not what the projections showed. The CBO projections showed that if Congress simply followed current law, letting the Bush tax cuts expire, not fixing the alternative minimum tax, and most importantly, allowing the spending caps in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to remain in place, then the debt to GDP ratio will soon stabilize and head downwards.

This is the CBO baseline scenario that is actually shown in the graphic accompanying the article, even though it is never mentioned in the article itself. The article focuses of the "alternative fiscal scenario" constructed by CBO, which assumes that Congress will deviate from the baseline in several important ways that will make the deficit worse. This fact should have been explained to readers. 

Instead the confusion is compounded with the assertion:

" If current policies are unchanged and the national debt continues to grow, the U.S. economic output could be as much as 6 percent smaller than current projections by 2025 and as much as 18 percent smaller by 2035."

It is unlikely that many readers would know that "current policies" includes the assumption that Congress will over-ride the spending caps that it voted into law with the ACA last year. It also would have been worth reminding readers that in 2025 per capita income is projected to be approximately 20 percent higher than it is today, so even with this worst case scenario, people would on average still have considerably higher incomes than they do today. In 2035 the projections show that per capita income would be about 40 percent higher.

The article also refers to President Obama's fiscal commission and tells readers:

"That commission produced a plan that would limit borrowing to a little over $5 trillion over the next decade."

This is not true. The commission did not issue a report because it did not have the necessary majority to get a report approved. The report referred to in the article is the report of the commission's co-chairs, Erskine Bowles and former Senator Alan Simpson.