Some of the regular blogs I read are currently preoccupied (understandably) with the US Presidential election. This is not my territory, but the role of fiscal councils – in this case the CBO – in costing budget proposals is, and the two connect with the analysis of the Ryan budget plan. The Ryan ‘plan’ involves cutting the US budget deficit, but contains hardly any specifics about how that will be done.
There is nothing unique to the US here. In the 2010 UK elections, both main parties acknowledged the need for substantial reductions in the budget deficit over time, but neither party fully specified how these would be achieved. Now as the appropriate speed of deficit reduction was a key election issue, this might seem surprising. In particular, why did one party not fully specify its deficit reduction programme, and then gain votes by suggesting the other was not serious about the issue?
The answer has to be that any gains in making the plans credible would be outweighed by the political costs of upsetting all those who would lose out on specific measures. People can sign up to lower deficits, as long as achieving them does not involve increasing their taxes or reducing their benefits. However, I think it’s more than this. If people were fully aware of the implications of what deficit reduction plans might entail, you would guess that lack of information might be even more damaging than full information. As people tend to be risk averse, the (more widespread) fear that their benefits might be cut could be more costly in electoral terms than a smaller number knowing the truth.
The fact that this logic does not operate suggests to me that (at least among swing voters) there is a bigger disconnect in people’s minds between aggregate deficit plans and specific measures. Saying you will be tough on the deficit does not panic swing voters, but adds to your credibility in being serious about the deficit ‘problem’. Indeed, from my memory of the UK election, claims by one side about secret plans of the other were effectively neutralised as scaremongering.
This can be seen as the reverse side of a familiar cause of deficit bias. A political party can gain votes by promising things to specific sections of the electorate, but does not lose as many votes because of worries about how this will be paid for. The media can correct this bias by insisting on asking where the money will come from (or in the reverse case, where the cuts will come from), but they may have limited ability to check or interrogate the answer. This is where a fiscal council, which has authority as a result of being set by government but also independent of government, can be useful.
For some time the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (often called the CPB) has offered to cost political parties fiscal proposals before elections. The interesting result is that all the major parties take up this offer. Not having your fiscal plans independently assessed appears to be a net political cost.
What the fiscal council is doing in this case is conferring an element of legitimacy on aggregate fiscal plans, a legitimacy that is more valuable than uncosted fiscal sweeteners. Which brings me to the question of what a fiscal council should do if these plans are clearly incomplete? In particular, suppose plans include some specific proposals that are deficit increasing or neutral, but unspecified plans to raise taxes or cut spending which lead to the deficit being reduced. By ‘should do’ here I do not mean what it is legally obliged to do, but what would be the right thing to do.
It seems to me clear that the right thing to do is not to cost the overall budget. What, after all, is being achieved by doing so? Many people or organisations can put a set of numbers for aggregate spending and taxes into a spreadsheet and calculate implied deficits, and the adding up can easily be checked. By getting the fiscal council to do this fairly trivial task serves no other purpose than to give the plan a legitimacy that it does not have.