The Center's work on 'Deficits and Projections' Issues

The Risks of Dynamic Scoring

February 26, 2015 at 11:06 am

In a guest TaxVox blog post for the Tax Policy Center’s series on “dynamic scoring,” I discuss some of the risks of a new House rule requiring dynamic scoring for official cost estimates of tax reform and other major legislation.  Under dynamic scoring, those estimates would incorporate estimates of how legislation would affect the size of the U. S. economy and, in turn, federal revenues and spending.

Dynamic estimates vary widely depending on the models and assumptions used.  I conclude that to make sense of those scores, policymakers will need more information about the models and assumptions than the House rule requires:

The House rule allows the House to use any increase in revenue from highly uncertain estimates of macroeconomic growth to pay for other policies. Policymakers will also be tempted to use a favorable dynamic estimate as proof that a policy is good for the economy and therefore should be enacted.  But the uncertainty and gaps in the models may mean that such a simple conclusion isn’t appropriate. Lawmakers will need more information than the House rule requires to assess the reliability of the estimate and to understand a bill’s possible economic effects.

“Generational Accounting” Is Misleading and Uninformative

February 24, 2015 at 9:55 am

The topic of “generational accounting” will likely surface when economist Lawrence Kotlikoff, who helped develop the approach over 20 years ago, testifies at tomorrow’s Senate Budget Committee hearing.  Generational accounting purports to compare the effects of federal budget policies on people born in different years.  But it’s far more likely to obscure than illuminate the budget picture, as we have explained.

Generational accounting calculates “lifetime net tax rates” for each one-year cohort of the population through at least age 90 and a separate lifetime net tax rate for all future generations combined.  Those measures are supposed to reflect each generation’s tax burden, minus the benefits it receives through programs such as Social Security and Medicare, under existing budget policies.

But generational accounting rests on several highly unrealistic assumptions.  Its calculations of lifetime net tax rates assume that there would be no changes whatsoever in current law for taxes or benefit policies for anyone now alive.  It doesn’t account for the benefits that government spending can have for future generations (for example, education and infrastructure spending that raises living standards).  And it ignores the fact that our children and grandchildren will be richer than we are and have more disposable income, even if they pay somewhat higher taxes.

Generational accounting’s most serious flaw may be that it requires projecting such key variables as population growth, labor force participation, earnings, health care costs, and interest rates through infinity.  Budget experts recognize that projections grow very iffy beyond a few decades — and spinning them out to infinity makes them much more so.  The American Academy of Actuaries describes projections into the infinite future as “of limited value to policymakers.”

The Congressional Budget Office, CBPP, and other leading budget analysts focus instead on the next 25 years or so, which amply documents future fiscal pressures and presents a reasonable horizon for policymakers.  These organizations produce simple, straightforward long-run projections that show the path of federal revenues, spending, and debt under current budget policies.  In that way, they show clearly what’s driving fiscal pressures, and when (see chart).

Policymakers should certainly look beyond the standard ten-year horizon of most budget estimates, but they already have the tools to do that. Generational accounting is hard to interpret and easily misunderstood, and including it in the federal government’s regular budget reports and cost estimates would be a mistake.

Setting the Record Straight on Student Loan Costs

February 18, 2015 at 11:05 am

President Obama’s 2016 budget estimates that the outstanding portfolio of federal student loans will be $21.8 billion less profitable than previously thought over the loans’ lifetime.  This reestimate doesn’t mean that the program “had a $21.8 billion shortfall last year,” as a Politico story stated.  Nor does it justify adopting an alternative accounting method (so-called “fair-value accounting”) that would artificially inflate the program’s cost.  The reestimate is, indeed, completely unrelated to the accounting method.

Here, briefly, is what the reestimate does and doesn’t mean.

Lending programs appear in the budget with up-front estimates of the net costs or profits to the government over the loans’ lifetime.  In the case of student loans, the government makes a profit, even after accounting for defaults, which is why student loans are a good deal for both students and the government.  If the government later concludes that its earlier estimates of lifetime costs were too high or low, it reestimates all outstanding loans.  The reestimate is recorded in the year it’s made (in this case, 2015), not in the many past years in which the loans were issued.

The recent $22 billion upward reestimate is the net result of three factors:

  • The President’s decision to permit students who borrowed before 2008 to switch to the Pay-As-You-Earn (PAYE) repayment plan will raise future costs by an estimated $9 billion.  PAYE caps monthly loan payments at 10 percent of borrowers’ incomes and forgives the remaining debt after 20 years of payments.
  • More student borrowers than originally expected are switching to other repayment plans that tie payments to borrowers’ incomes, raising future costs by an estimated $15 billion.
  • Expected defaults are down (that is, more borrowers are expected to repay their loans than previously estimated), lowering future costs by an estimated $2 billion.

This isn’t a “shortfall.”  No cash is missing, nor are the 2015 inflows and outflows of student loans $22 billion lower than initially thought.  Rather, the $22 billion reestimate is a new, and slightly less sanguine, view of the net profits that the government will make over the next few decades on the student loans that are now outstanding.

The reestimate isn’t particularly large in percentage terms, either.  It’s about 2.9 percent of the outstanding portfolio of student loans, which is three-quarters of a trillion dollars.

Also, while Senator Deb Fischer (R-NE) cited the reestimate in introducing a bill requiring the use of “fair-value accounting” for student loans and other credit programs, “fair-value accounting” would make student loan accounting less accurate, not more, and it wouldn’t have avoided these reestimates.

Here’s why.  By law, the government estimates the costs or profits of its loans based on the difference between what the government will pay out in loans (including the cost to the Treasury of financing the loans) and the interest, principal, and associated fees that borrowers will repay over time, accounting for expected defaults.  “Fair-value” proponents say that the budget should reflect the higher financing and other costs that a private lender would incur if it, not the federal government, made the loans.  This approach would record loans as less profitable (or more expensive) to the government than they really are by including costs in the budget that the federal government never has to pay.  For these reasons, we strongly oppose “fair-value accounting,” as we’ve explained here, here, and here.

Importantly, even if the government had been using phantom “fair-value” costs in its initial estimates of student loans, it still would have needed to make the same upward revision in 2015 due to the three factors described above.  “Fair-value accounting” would not have affected that reality in any way.

Projected Health Spending Has Fallen Since 2010, Even With Health Reform’s Coverage Expansions

January 28, 2015 at 11:20 am

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) now projects that federal health spending — including the costs of health reform’s coverage expansions — will be about $600 billion less over 2011-2020 than CBO projected in January 2010 without health reform (see figure).

In other words, projected health spending over the decade has fallen by $600 billion since 2010, despite $1 trillion in additional spending for premium tax credits and expanded Medicaid to help cover 27 million more Americans.

The decline in projected spending, which continues a pattern of downward revisions to CBO’s projections in recent years, stems from several factors.  One is health reform’s cuts in payments to Medicare providers and health plans.  Another is the recession, which has reduced the demand for health care services by slowing income growth.

But CBO and other experts have also concluded that a substantial part of the health care cost slowdown reflects structural changes in the health care system.  Professional associations, hospitals, and doctors are taking steps to curb costly and ineffective procedures and treatments.

CBO’s new report says, “Although views differ on how much of the slowdown is attributable to the recession and its aftermath and how much to other factors, the slower growth has been sufficiently broad and persistent to persuade [CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation] to significantly lower their projections of federal health care spending.”

Health reform itself has most likely contributed to the slowdown as well.  As Kaiser Family Foundation President Drew Altman has written, “Even though its direct effects on system-wide costs may be limited so far, I believe Obamacare is having a significant indirect effect, although cause and effect and the magnitude are hard to prove. . . .  [It] is entirely likely that Obamacare has played and will continue to play a role in the slowdown in health-care cost growth and accelerating market change.”

To be sure, federal health spending — even if cost growth remains moderate — will keep rising as more baby boomers become eligible for Medicare and Medicaid.  Making the U.S. health care system more efficient thus remains a major budget challenge.  But CBO’s latest projections show that we’ve already made substantial progress.

IRS Funding Cuts Harm Customer Service and Raise Deficits

January 14, 2015 at 4:56 pm

Honest taxpayers will feel the pain of Congress’ cuts in the IRS budget, new reports from National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson and IRS Commissioner John Koskinen confirm.  As we’ve written, funding cuts in recent years have compromised taxpayer service and weakened enforcement of the nation’s tax laws.  Olson warns that this year’s cuts will worsen these problems, predicting that taxpayers will likely receive the worst service from the IRS in over a decade.

Congress has cut IRS funding sharply since 2010 (see chart), despite repeated warnings of the negative effects.  Funding is 19 percent below the 2010 level and at its lowest level since 1997, after adjusting for inflation.  Yet the number of tax returns filed has grown significantly, and the IRS has received major new responsibilities related to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act and the Affordable Care Act.

In her 2014 Annual Report to Congress, released today, Olson warns that funding cuts have led to a “devastating erosion of taxpayer service, harming taxpayers individually and collectively.”  The IRS will answer as few as 43 percent of taxpayers’ estimated 100 million calls this filing season, and callers will face an average wait time of at least 30 minutes.  In comparison, in 2004 the IRS answered 87 percent of calls with an average wait time of less than 3 minutes.  The IRS also won’t be able to respond to any taxpayer questions except “basic” ones this season, according to Olson.

Similarly, Commissioner Koskinen explained in a letter to IRS employees yesterday that this year’s funding cut will delay improvements in information technology for taxpayer services and force a reduction in enforcement funding of more than $160 million.  Cutting enforcement funding actually raises budget deficits by weakening tax collections.  Koskinen estimates this year’s cut in enforcement funding alone will cost the federal government at least $2 billion in revenue that it otherwise would have collected.

The IRS performs one of government’s most essential functions by collecting the revenue it needs to operate.  Congress should stop undermining it and give it the resources it needs.