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“Dynamic Scoring Isn’t A Magical Tool”: Here’s How Conservatives Rig The Budget Game In Washington

When Republicans decided not to retain Doug Elmendorf as head of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Democrats became concerned that conservatives would try to rig the budget process. When the GOP required the CBO to use dynamic scoring for its legislative scores, Democrats became even more concerned. Those fears have proven overblown. The new CBO chair, whom Republicans announced last week, is Keith Hall, an economist at the Mercatus Center who was the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics under President Barack Obama. He’s a credible economist, not a partisan hack.

If you still want to see the budget gamed, though, look no further than the Tax Foundation’s score of Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee’s tax plan. The Foundation says that under a static scoring model, which doesn’t account for macroeconomic effects of the plan, the plan would cost the federal government $414 billion annually. That’s a huge amount of money. The government collects about $3 trillion a year in tax revenue, meaning the Rubio-Lee plan would be a 12.5 percent cut, a bold but unsurprising figure. Before Lee teamed up with Rubio, he released a first draft of his tax plan that reduced government revenue by an average of $240 billion a year. The new plan has even more tax cuts.

But when the Tax Foundation applies a dynamic scoring model to estimate the revenue effects of Rubio-Lee, the findings get downright wild. The Foundation projects that once the economy adjusts to the changes, it will grow enough to generate $508 billion (in 2015 dollars) in additional revenue each year. That would leave the American taxpayer with a cool $94 billion net annual gain.

To understand why this is so ridiculous, look at the Joint Committee on Taxation’s dynamic scoring estimates for the tax plan former Representative Dave Camp released last year. (The JCT produces revenue estimates for CBO.) The JCT used eight different dynamic scoring models and provided eight different estimates. “The increase in projected economic activity is projected to increase revenues relative to the conventional revenue estimate by $50 to $700 billion, depending on which modeling assumptions are used, over the 10-year budget period,” the report concluded. Now, $700 billion is nothing to sneer at, but that’s over a ten-year period. The Tax Foundation’s dynamic scoring model raised nearly that amount of additional revenue every single year.1

This is a slightly different comparison, because JCT’s numbers come from the 10-year period while the economy adjusted to the tax plan versus the Tax Foundation’s numbers, which are from after the economy full adjusted. The difference is still stark.

Once the Foundation releases the full report Monday, Rubio and Lee will surely cite the numbers ad nauseam to gin up favorable coverage and analyses of the proposal. The Tax Foundation is giving Rubio and Lee a major political boost by producing such a friendly score.

I’m sure the Foundation’s economists would disagree that they are doing the two senators a huge favor. They would say that the Rubio-Lee plan is far friendlier to economic growth than Camp’s plan was. Maybe they’re right. But it’s not that much friendlier. These numbers are far beyond any realistic estimate of Rubio-Lee’s macroeconomic effects. And it’s basically impossible to produce realistic estimates to start. “Theoretically dynamic scoring is the right thing to do,” Peter Orszag, who was director of CBO under President Barack Obama from 2007 to 2008, told me in January. “Just practically, it’s problematic. When you’re forced to pick one model, you’re pushing scientific knowledge beyond reality. You’re forcing the organization to pick one ‘true’ model when the economic science hasn’t produced a single model that works.”

Many conservative economists agree. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former CBO director, has frequently said that dynamic scoring isn’t a magical tool to make huge tax cuts look fiscally responsible. Greg Mankiw, who was the top economist for President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2005, recently wrote in the New York Times that while dynamic scoring is theoretically correct, “there are also good reasons to be wary of the endeavor.”

If Republicans had required that the CBO and the JCT use the Tax Foundation’s dynamic scoring model, it would have been a major problem. At least now the two parties accept the CBO’s score as legitimate. If they demand a bill to be deficit-neutral, the CBO is the final arbiter. That would all change if the Tax Foundation’s models were used. Of course, the actual likelihood of that happening was never clear. But if Republicans had required such changes, Democrats would never have trusted any score on any legislation—and rightfully so.

The two sides have enough trouble agreeing to pass anything today. It would be that much harder if they couldn’t even agree on the scores of legislation. You can understand why Democrats were so nervous as Republicans debated how to change the agencies.

1This is a slightly different comparison, because JCT’s numbers come from the 10-year period while the economy adjusted to the tax plan versus the Tax Foundation’s numbers, which are from after the economy full adjusted. The difference is still stark.

 

By: Danny Vinik, The New Republic, March 5, 2015

March 6, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, Dynamic Scoring, Federal Budget | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Making Stuff Up”: A Republican Ruse To Make Tax Cuts Look Good

As Republicans take control of Congress this month, at the top of their to-do list is changing how the government measures the impact of tax cuts on federal revenue: namely, to switch from so-called static scoring to “dynamic” scoring. While seemingly arcane, the change could have significant, negative consequences for enacting sustainable, long-term fiscal policies.

Whenever new tax legislation is proposed, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office “scores” it, to estimate whether the bill would raise more or less revenue than existing law would.

In preparing estimates, scorekeepers try to predict how people will respond to a new tax law. For example, if Congress contemplates raising the excise tax on cigarettes, scorekeepers consider existing trends in cigarette consumption, the likelihood that the higher taxes will induce some smokers to quit, and the prospect that higher prices will increase incentives for cigarette smuggling. There are no truly “static” revenue estimates.

These conventional estimates do not, however, include any indirect feedback effects that tax law changes might have on overall national income. In other words, they do not incorporate macroeconomic behavioral changes.

Dynamic scoring does. Proponents point out, correctly, that if a tax proposal is large enough, then those sorts of feedback effects can aim the entire economy on a slightly different path.

Such proponents argue that conventional projections are skewed against tax cuts, because they do not consider that cutting taxes could lead to higher economic output, which would make up at least some of the lost revenues. They maintain that dynamic scoring will, therefore, be both more neutral and more accurate than current methodologies.

But the reality is more complex. In order to look at the effects across the entire economy, dynamic modeling relies on many simplifying assumptions, like how well people can predict the future or how much they care about their children’s future consumption versus their own.

Economists disagree on the answers, and different models’ predicted feedback effects vary wildly, depending on the values selected for those uncertain assumptions. The resulting estimates are likely to incorporate greater uncertainty about the magnitude of any revenue-estimating errors and greater exposure to the risk of a political thumb on the scale.

Consider the nonpartisan scorekeepers’ estimates of the consequences of a tax-reform bill proposed last year by Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan. Using different models and plausible inputs, the scorekeepers estimated that, under the bill, total gross domestic product might rise between 0.1 percent and 1.6 percent over the next decade — a 16-fold spread in projected outcomes. Which result should be the basis of congressional scorekeeping?

But the bigger problems lie deeper. Federal deficits are on an unsustainable path (as it happens, because of undertaxation, not excessive spending). Simply cutting taxes against the headwind of structural deficits leads to lower growth, as government borrowing soaks up an ever-increasing share of savings.

The most optimistic dynamic models get around this by assuming that the world today is in fiscal equilibrium, where the deficit does not grow continuously as a percentage of gross domestic product. But that’s not true. If you add the reality of spiraling deficits into those models, they don’t work.

To make these models work, scorekeepers must arbitrarily assume either that we tax more and spend less today than is really the case — which is what they did for the Camp bill — or assume that a tax cut today will be followed by a spending cut or tax increase tomorrow. Economists describe such a move as “making counterfactual assumptions”; the rest of us call it “making stuff up.”

In practice, these models are political statements. They show the biggest economic effects by assuming that tax cuts are financed by unspecified future spending cuts. The smaller size of government, not the tax cuts by themselves, largely drives the models’ results.

Further, the models are not a step toward more neutral revenue estimates, because they assume that, while individuals make productive investments, government does not. In reality, government spending contributes significantly to economic output. Truly dynamic modeling would weigh the forgone economic returns of government investments against the economic gains from lower taxes.

The Republicans’ interest in dynamic scoring is not the result of a million-economist march on Washington; it comes from political factions convinced that tax cuts are the panacea for all economic ills. They will use dynamic scoring to justify a tax cut that, under conventional scorekeeping, loses revenue.

When revenues do in fact decline and deficits rise, those same proponents will push for steep cuts in government insurance or investment programs, because they will claim that the models demand it. That is what lies inside the Trojan horse of dynamic scoring.

 

By: Edward D. Kleinbard, Law Professor at the University of Southern California and a former Chief of Staff of the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation; Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, January 2, 2015

January 4, 2015 Posted by | Dynamic Scoring, Federal Budget, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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