Today the Congressional Budget Office released its much-anticipated projections for the budget. As usual, the headline figure is CBO’s estimate of the budget deficit, now projected to be $1.35 trillion for the fiscal year, about 9.2% of GDP.
That’s slightly better than last year–when $1.4 trillion deficits amounted to 9.9% of GDP–but is still the second-worst since World War II. And, as CBO notes, new legislation could easily lift the 2010 figure higher. For example, Congress will likely consider further extensions to unemployment benefits and more war spending, not to mention a possible jobs bill.
CBO also projected deficits for the next decade. They are large and persistent:
The blue line shows CBO’s official budget baseline. That baseline shows persistent deficits over the next decade. They fall below 3% of GDP by 2014 and then increase somewhat in later years. I would characterize that trajectory as unwelcome but not a crisis.
It’s also completely unrealistic given Washington’s current policy predilections.
The official baseline is built upon two key assumptions: that existing laws execute exactly as written and that discretionary spending increases with inflation in future years. Those assumptions make sense for constructing a baseline that will be used to score the budget impacts of new legislation. But, as CBO itself notes, they are unrealistic if your goal to make predictions of where current policy is leading:
- Under current tax law, a remarkable number of tax reductions will expire in the near future. These include the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts (EGTRRA and JGTRRA, often known as the Bush tax cuts), the annual patch to the dreaded alternative minimum tax (which prevent the AMT from hitting more and more families), the Making Work Pay tax credit (enacted as part of the stimulus), expanded net operating loss carrybacks (enacted as part of another, smaller stimulus bill in the summer), and a panoply of other, smaller provisions (e.g., the research and experimentation tax credit). It is unthinkable that Washington will allow all these to expire.
- In recent years, discretionary spending has grown faster than inflation. As yet, there is no reason to believe that will stop.
- On the other hand, the current baseline assumes that spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will continue at their 2009 pace, adjusted for inflation, over the next decade. One hopes that assumption is unrealistically high.
To help outside analysts construct alternative baselines that better show existing policy, rather than existing law, CBO provides estimates for several policy alternatives. Analysts differ on which of these alternatives they use to build a policy alternative (and, given more time, they may also use other estimates).
As rough justice I made the following assumptions for the chart above: (1) that regular discretionary spending grows at the same pace as nominal GDP in coming years (closer to recent history than the baseline assumption of growth with inflation), (2) that spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan moderates somewhat in coming years (CBO’s 60,000 troop scenario), (3) that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are permanently extended, and (4) that the AMT is indexed for inflation.
Under these assumptions, the budget picture is much scarier: deficits never get lower than 5.5% of GDP and they are 7.5% by 2020.
Bottom line: Current policy is unsustainable.
Note: You should view my adjusted baseline as a quick-and-dirty, back-of-the-envelope of existing policy. For example, it doesn’t include any adjustments for other expiring tax provisions (which are substantial) or the infamous Medicare doctor payment problem; if you made adjustments for those, the deficit outlook would look worse. On the other hand, many political leaders, including President Obama, want to scale back the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts; if you did that, the deficit outlook would look better.