Why resurrect budget dinosaurs and bad economic policy?

On Tuesday, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) marked up, but didn’t vote on, a budget modeled off of the report by National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson (often called the “Bowles-Simpson” report), which failed to garner the requisite support of a super majority of the Fiscal Commission’s members in Dec. 2010.

A budget alternative based on (albeit significantly to the right of) the Bowles-Simpson report recently went down in flames in the House of Representatives—by a crushing vote of 382-38. Stan Collender recently published an excellent piece on the cult-like efforts and failed politics of resurrecting the Bowles-Simpson report since its demise. Essentially, politicians and pundits cling to the Bowles-Simpson report as a talisman to signal their “seriousness” about reducing budget deficits. But it’s worth looking at the dismal economic fundamentals behind the Bowles-Simpson grandstanding, because the report’s recommendations were and remain terrible economic policy. It’s just one more reminder that “popular among Washington pundits” rarely correlates with “good economic policy.”

In Dec. 2010, my colleague Josh Bivens and I estimated that the Bowles-Simpson report would have sharply reduced aggregate demand and employment by failing to accommodate near-term stimulus and prematurely moving toward deficit reduction:

“One of the guiding principles of the Co-Chairs’ plan reads “Don’t Disrupt a Fragile Economic Recovery,” but the details make clear that this is nothing but lip service to the persistent economic challenges this country will face for years. Rather than budgeting for more desperately needed fiscal stimulus in the near-term, their sole acknowledgement of the Great Recession and the painfully slow recovery since it ended over a year ago is to “start gradually; begin cuts in FY2012.”

That diagnosis has only solidified in the interim. Here was the Bowles-Simpson four-pronged approach to supposed economic stewardship:

  • Reduce the deficit gradually, starting in FY2012
  • Put in place a credible plan to stabilize the debt
  • Consider a temporary payroll tax holiday in FY2011
  • Implement pro-growth tax and spending policies

How prudent would it be to have begun deficit reduction in fiscal 2012? At the start of the fiscal year (Oct. 2011) the unemployment rate stood at 8.9 percent and real GDP had grown a meager 1.6 percent in the year to 4Q 2011—not exactly the robust recovery that could accommodate deep fiscal retrenchment. Fiscal stimulus required more than consideration and a fully paid for payroll tax holiday—bigger deficits and a mix of spending measures and targeted tax cuts were needed (and actually enacted, albeit on a vastly insufficient scale). And it’s downright disingenuous to pawn off big spending cuts, particularly to the non-security discretionary budget, as a pro-growth spending policy. Collectively, this amounts to economic pain with little to no budgetary gain: Berkeley economist Brad DeLong estimates that in light of current growth and interest rates, fiscal expansion is entirely self-financing with regard to the long-run fiscal outlook; conversely, fiscal contraction would be largely to entirely self-defeating.

Beneath this pretense, Bowles-Simpson proposed $50 billion in primary spending cuts for FY12 and $138 billion for FY13 (as well as $4 billion and $29 billion, respectively, in tax increases which would have exerted a much smaller fiscal drag per dollar than spending reductions). Further obstructing recovery, the Bowles-Simpson report would not have accommodated the piecemeal stimulus that Congress has enacted since Dec. 2010, including $227 billion for payroll tax cuts, $95 billion in emergency unemployment compensation, $44 billion for expanded refundable tax credits, and $22 billion for (admittedly less effective) business investment incentives.

Relative to the course Congress has taken, the adverse economic impact proposed by the Bowles-Simpson report is stark. The Moment of Truth Project rescored the Bowles-Simpson report based on the Congressional Budget Office’s March 2011 baseline. For an apples-to-apples comparison, I’ve adjusted non-interest outlays and revenue for economic and technical—but not legislative—changes to the CBO’s budget projections since that March 2011 baseline. Relative to current budget policy, the Bowles-Simpson plan would have reduced non-interest spending by $53 billion in FY12 and $79 billion in FY13 and increased revenue by $107 billion in FY12 and $167 billion in FY13 (largely reflecting the payroll tax cut). As a result, economic output would be 1.3 percent lower in FY12 and 2.0 percent lower in fiscal 2013. This shock to aggregate demand would reduce nonfarm payroll employment by 1.6 million jobs in FY12 and 2.4 million jobs in FY13, again relative to current budget policies.

Piecemeal stimulus was far from optimal—but also unequivocally preferable to a deficit reduction grand bargain that would have thrown recovery off track. This isn’t to suggest that Congress has done a bang-up job with economic policy since Dec. 2010; the Budget Control Act (i.e., debt ceiling deal) was terrible fiscal policy and passing the entire American Jobs Act would have done substantially more to reduce joblessness than merely continuing the payroll tax cut and emergency unemployment compensation. But the public should be relieved that American policymakers haven’t fully embraced European-style austerity, thereby choking off economic recovery with nothing to show for it. It’s time for Washington to stop trying to breathe life back into the Bowles-Simpson plan and let it die the obscure death it deserves.