The pessimistic CBO estimates of growth, deficits, and unemployment for 2012 and 2013 are big news. The Democrats use them to argue for more stimulus. The Republicans cite them as a cautionary tale against government spending. Both sides express reverence for the “non-partisan” CBO, whose calculations are the “gold standard” of accuracy and integrity.
This elevated view of the CBO is wrong, not because the CBO is partisan or not immune to fudging. The CBO studies that I have examined use Keynesian models as the basis for all their calculations. If they are ordered to estimate the effect of the stimulus on GDP and jobs, they attach Keynesian multipliers to different spending categories. The model they use guarantees the findingthat the stimulus saved jobs and growth. Similarly, when the CBO looks ahead to 2012 and 2013 and applies similar Keynesian models to projected tax increases and slower government spending, they will automatically conclude that growth will be slow and unemployment high.
The new CBO estimates cover 172 pages of charts, explanations, and footnotes. The draft spends most of its time on the details of government spending and revenues, which they must estimate using the flawed assumptions Congress gives them. The CBO publication does not take the reader into the “kitchen” where they prepare their estimates of GDP, but the source of their pessimism is clear from a short quotation (page 36):
Federal fiscal support for economic growth will weaken this year before turning to significant restraint in 2012 and 2013. Without the 2010 tax act, federal fiscal policy would have been restrictive this year because of the previously scheduled tax increases and the waning of the effects of ARRA (the stimulus).