Why the U.S. Should Want to Reduce Climate Damage to Other Nations

Filed Under (Environmental Policy) by Don Fullerton on Jun 10, 2011

The usual argument against unilateral U.S. effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce climate change is that we’d impose significant costs on ourselves, with most benefits going to other countries.   Thus, we should wait for an international agreement.  By the way, an international agreement is not going to happen.  Meanwhile we wait, which means more global warming, sea level rise, and increased extreme weather events like floods, droughts, and hurricanes.   That argument may also include the claim that U.S. agricultural productivity might increase from a little global warming, and the U.S. is rich enough to protect itself against sea level rise. 

According to that logic, we can’t worry too much about damages to other countries, as we can’t take care of the whole world by ourselves.

The problem with that logic is that those costs to other countries will unavoidably become costs on us!  Take two examples.  First, a Reuters article points out that “a third of Bangladesh’s coastline could be flooded if the sea rises one meter in the next 50 years, creating an additional 20 million Bangladeshis displaced from their homes and farms.”   Some large percentage of the nation could disappear under water.  And that’s only one such nation.  Global warming and sea level rise could displace hundreds of millions of poor people.  The U.S. will find itself unable to turn its back on such a disaster, for humanitarian reasons.  Moreover, the costs would come back to haunt us in other ways, through increased wars and other political disruptions of great danger to the U.S. itself.

A second example appears in a recent NY Times article about the effects of global warming on agricultural productivity.   It starts by describing terrific recent technological advances: “Forty years ago, a third of the population in the developing world was undernourished. By the tail end of the Green Revolution, in the mid-1990s, the share had fallen below 20 percent, and the absolute number of hungry people dipped below 800 million for the first time in modern history.”  But those technological advances have leveled off, while growing demands have reflected huge growth in worldwide population and incomes.  The resulting grain price spikes have contributed to the largest increases in world hunger in decades, perhaps 925 million last year (see screen-shot).

What is the role of human-induced climate change?  The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has already increased by 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution.  We are on course to double or triple this level within a hundred years.  This climate change contributes to extreme weather events.  “Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters, like floods in the United States, drought in Australia and blistering heat waves in Europe and Russia. Scientists believe some, though not all, of those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming. …  In 2007 and 2008, with grain stockpiles low, prices doubled and in some cases tripled. Whole countries began hoarding food, and panic buying ensued in some markets, notably for rice. Food riots broke out in more than 30 countries.”

The world’s population was less than 3 billion in 1950.  It is now about 7 billion, and is expected to grow to 10 billion by the year 2100. “Unlike in the past, that demand must somehow be met on a planet where little new land is available for farming, where water supplies are tightening, where the temperature is rising, where the weather has become erratic and where the food system is already showing serious signs of instability.”

Suppose the U.S. is only to look out only for itself.  Forget altruism.  Forget unilateral efforts to save the world.  Wouldn’t we merely be protecting ourselves by doing something now to reduce worldwide political instability that could result from a hundred million refugees and famines of that magnitude?

Many gas taxes, but falling over time

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Apr 1, 2011

Per gallon of gasoline, are we paying more in taxes over the years, or less?   In my last post, I examined the Federal gas tax and inflation adjustments.  As it turns out, the overall price of gasoline adjusted for inflation just hasn’t changed that much over the past fifty years!  Regarding the Federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon as a tool to collect revenue, however, the impact is significantly weakened by inflation.  It is a “unit tax” (fixed over time per unit of gasoline), and so it becomes a smaller fraction of price as the gas price rises.  In contrast, any “ad valorem” tax would be a fixed percentage of price (like an 8% sales tax).  When inflation increases the price, an ad valorem tax rises with it.

State and local gas taxes in Illinois are a bit more complicated. In 1990, the State of Illinois raised the gas tax from 16 cents to the current 19 cents per gallon – another “unit” tax.  The flat blue line in the figure below looks at that same fixed 19 cents per gallon since 1990.  The orange line shows its “real” value, adjusted for inflation, all in current 2011 dollars.  It shows that the 19 cents today is really the equivalent of 33 cents back in 1990.  So the real value of the state’s unit tax on gasoline has fallen from 33 cents to 19 cents per gallon.

In addition to the 19 cent per gallon state gas tax, we also pay 2 cents per gallon to the city of Urbana.  Furthermore, gasoline is subject to the general sales tax, which in Urbana is 8.75%.  (It is composed of 5% to the state, 2.25% to the city, 0.5% to the county, and another 1% to the school district). 

Here is how it all works.  Suppose the net-of-tax price of gas kept by the service station is exactly 3 dollars.  Then the combined state and local ad valorem sales tax (8.75%) applies to that $3.00 per gallon.  That tax would be $0.2625 (in other words, 26.25 cents).  Then the federal unit tax is 18.4 cents, the state unit gas tax is 19 cents, and the city unit gas tax is 2 cents.  The total of all those taxes is 75.65 cents per gallon.  These four major taxes per gallon are shown in the table.

Level of Tax

Tax in Cents per gallon

Federal unit tax

18.40

Illinois unit tax

19.00
Urbana unit tax

2.00

Combined sales tax

26.25

TOTAL TAX

75.65

 

That total 76-cent tax adds to the $3 per gallon price, and you pay $3.76 per gallon.   (And actually, a few other minor taxes are ignored here, such as the “Underground Storage Tank” fee and other environmental fees!)

 Yet only the ad valorem sales tax can keep up with inflation.  With every year that a unit tax on gasoline is not updated, the tax loses its value and fails to collect as much real revenue.   The State of Illinois revenue from the 19 cent gas tax is falling in real terms with inflation, as all the necessary expenditures by the State are rising.

Here we go again, …

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Health Care, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Feb 25, 2011

Yes, I’ve written about the budget before, and perhaps I’m getting repetitive.  But it’s important, and surprising, so I’ll give it another go.  But nevermind President Obama’s recent release of a proposed budget for next year.  That document is already irrelevant!  Let’s start with the current budget. 

Current federal spending now is over  $3 trillion per year.  The deficit is $1.6 trillion.  The U.S. House of Representatives approved a plan to cut spending by $60 billion.  The Republicans chose not to change spending on defense and homeland security, nor entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  The problem is that then other discretionary spending must be cut for some government agencies by as much as 40%.  And yet that total $60 billion cut is only a drop in the bucket.  It cuts the annual deficit only from $1.6 trillion to 1.54 trillion!

My point is that you can’t get there from here.  First of all, it’s not wise to cast such a wide net, without thinking, making cuts of 40% or more to discretionary programs simply because they are called discretionary.  It means cuts to national parks, environmental programs, and federal employees who provide many public services people want.

Second, who says we need to leave defense and entitlements untouched?   Within just a few years, Medicaid will cost about $300 billion per year, Medicare will cost $500 billion, and Social Security will cost $800 billion, and defense $800 billion.  ALL of domestic discretionary spending will be only $400 billion.  By those round numbers, $60 billion from that last category is a 15% cut.   The same $60 billion cut proportionally from all of those categories would be only a 2% cut.  That’s what I mean by a drop in the bucket.

Anyway, that plan would still cut the deficit only from $1.6 trillion to $1.54 trillion.  The ONLY way to make any sizeable dent in the huge $1.6 trillion deficit is to look at all the current spending, not just at $400 billion of domestic discretionary spending, but at the $800 billion of defense spending, $800 billion of social  security, $500 billion of Medicare, and/or $300 billion of Medicaid.

And who says taxes are sacrosanct?  A $1.6 trillion deficit means we are spending more than our income, so one just MIGHT think that problem can be approached from both ends.

How Much Should Congress Leave to the Regulators?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Feb 11, 2011

The very existence of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long been a point of contention between the two political parties.  What is, and what ought to be the role of the EPA with regard to policy making?  Congress cannot possibly enact laws that contain every detail about subsequent implementation, monitoring, and enforcement.  And they should not put everything in the law anyway, in order to allow enough flexibility to deal with future contingencies.  Besides, those in Congress don’t have the science background necessary to decide all of the details of some technological aspects of pollution prevention.

The law does not say that every electric power plant must reduce emissions of each pollutant to no more than some number, like 37 micrograms per cubic meter.  Instead, the law from Congress just says that EPA should protect human health to an adequate margin of safety.

Yet some would prefer that the EPA disappear, along with every agency having any regulatory power.  This agency, which was conceived in 1970 under Richard Nixon, has analyzed and supported some of the most important pieces of legislation of the last forty years, ranging from the Endangered Species Act to – more recently – the new emissions standards going into effect this year. 

In 2007, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision called “Massachusetts vs. EPA”, that the EPA could in fact regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, on the grounds that such emissions do affect human health.  When combined with the new Republican-dominated Congress, we have set the stage for yet another ideological battle. 

Throughout the past decade, much of the discussion about controlling carbon dioxide emissions has largely centered around the idea of Cap and Trade.  That system would effectively put a price on each unit of pollution emissions.  It would create a market where the need for emissions and the cost of emissions are balanced in a way that can achieve economic efficiency.  However, the most viable attempt at this in recent years, the Waxman-Markey bill of 2009 (H.R.5454), passed the House and not the Senate.  It would not even get past the House in this term.  

The question then becomes, what exactly are the cards that the EPA retains in their deck? 

A recent article is titled “Greenhouse Gas Regulation Under the Clean Air Act” by researchers at Resources for the Future (RFF, by Burtraw, Fraas, and Richardson).  It seeks to explore the options available to the EPA, in-depth.  What they find is that the EPA can implement measures that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly in a measured and cost-effective manner.  For this to happen, however, they argue that the EPA must become bold and decisive in their actions. 

Bold action may be taken as an example of government overreach, and so the EPA must be careful.

Republicans are currently in discussion to introduce the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 .  They recognize that the EPA holds some powerful cards after the Supreme Court ruling in 2007, and they want to take that power away.  This Act would shift the EPA’s ability to regulate from the Agency to the legislative branch.  Yet such an action could take any decision-making ability from the scientists and put it in the hands of the politicians.  As EPA leader Lisa Jackson said, “Politicians overruling scientists on a scientific question – that would become part of this committee’s legacy.’”  Herein lies a problem with democracy.  The people in charge of making the decisions that affect us all, often have little knowledge of the actual issues at hand.  After all, Republicans from oil-rich states like Oklahoma still claim global warming is nothing but a hoax.

In Writing this Blog, I Have a Conflict of Interest

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, Health Care, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Jan 14, 2011

In his documentary movie about the financial crisis called “Inside Job”, and in his article in “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” Charles Ferguson talks about “the hugely damaging conflicts of interest of the senior academic economists who move among universities, government, and banking.”   Indeed, he says that these conflicts of interest are “what is wrong with economics, with academe, and indeed with the American economy.”

Before going any further, let me note that I am a senior academic economist, and I am a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury (for Tax Analysis).  I’m mostly interested in trying to do good research, and trying to help make good economic policy that will increase general economic well-being.  For this reason, I do very little if any consulting, and I’m not on any corporate boards.  However, I will NOT claim to have no conflicts of interest.

Indeed, that’s the point.  We ALL have conflicts of interest.  When a student asks me a question, I may respond “please work it out on your own.”  But we have no way to know how much of that response is intended to save me the time and effort of explaining, or to help the student learn the material.  It’s both.  But the student will certainly remember it better by active problem solving than by passive listening. 

I do have my own political views, and I don’t doubt that some of them seep into my economics research.  It would be incredibly naïve to think that such research is void of personal biases.  All we can do is try to state findings as objectively as possible, and let others pick it apart or use their own models and data to find competing results.  Then we’ll discuss it!

Thus, I think Ferguson is beyond hyperbole when he says that this “revolving door … is the result of an extraordinary and underappreciated scandal in American society: the convergence of academic economics, Wall Street, and political power.”   Scandal?   Really?   A scandal is something previously kept hidden.   Did anybody not know that academic economists often take a leave-of-absence to work for the government, or that they often do consulting for business?  It’s really not news when he says: “Prominent academic economists (and sometimes also professors of law and public policy) are paid by companies and interest groups to testify before Congress, to write papers, to give speeches, to participate in conferences, to serve on boards of directors, to write briefs in regulatory proceedings, to defend companies in antitrust cases, and, of course, to lobby.”

That is not to say his article has no validity, however.  Despite the hyperbole, his points are basically right, and it’s worthwhile to remind readers and the public to be aware of potential conflicts of interest.  Indeed, you should already be aware of HIS conflict of interest: he is writing a somewhat sensationalized story, in order to draw attention to himself and his movie, in hopes you’ll pay money to see it.  He’s not wrong to do that; it’s just an inherent and unavoidable conflict of interest.

To be clear, I’m not trying to claim that all is right with academia.  Much more relevant and bothersome is when professors don’t disclose specific financial conflicts of interest.  That part of Ferguson’s story may point to potential scandals that somebody is trying to hide.  That’s the part of the story that Ferguson should have focused upon.  And yet, if professors are not revealing financial conflicts of interest, then that’s the part of the story most difficult to document.

Ferguson’s overstatements may induce some to dismiss his story, and not hear the important and correct point he makes. It’s not wrong to have conflicts of interest; it’s wrong not to disclose them.

I would hope to think that most professors do routinely reveal financial conflicts of interest, and that we can use their resulting research to learn something useful – as I said above:  “let others pick it apart or use their own models and data to find competing results.  Then we’ll discuss it!”

As long as it is revealed, we can USE inherent conflict of interest to help students learn about how to interpret such results. Consider the following two published articles in refereed academic journals about the costs of the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez in 1989:

Hausman, Jerry A., Gregory K. Leonard, and Daniel McFadden (1995), “A Utility-Consistent, Combined Discrete Choice and Count Data Model: Assessing Recreational Use Losses Due to Natural Resource Damage,” Journal of Public Economics 56: 1-30. 

Carson, Richard T., Robert C. Mitchell, Michael Hanemann, Raymond J. Kopp, Stanley Presser, and Paul A. Ruud (2003), “Contingent Valuation and Lost Passive Use: Damages from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill,” Environmental and Resource Economics 25: 257-86

Hausman et al find that the cost is about $3 million.  That’s a lot of money, if it arrived in my own personal bank account.  But that’s million, with an “m”.  Carson et al find that the cost is about $3 billion.  That’s billion with a “b”.  Is somebody joking here?  No, and in fact, they both are correct!  They are just measuring different things.  Hausman et al measure the lost “use” values of the few thousand Alaskans who will not be able to use that area for recreational hunting, fishing, hiking, and boating.  In contrast, Carson et al measure the lost “NON-use” values of 300,000,000 Americans who likely never visit Alaska but who nonetheless feel badly for the damaged ecosystem and wildlife, and who would be willing to help pay for protection of that natural environment.

The example is an opportunity to teach students about how properly to interpret academic research and to understand the different perspectives of different researchers.  And although it shouldn’t really surprise anybody, here are the quotes from those two papers’ acknowledgement footnotes, with proper revelation of financial interests:

Hausman et al, finding that the cost is $3 million: “This paper reports on research funded by Exxon Company, USA. It should not be interpreted as representing the views of any parties other than the authors.”

Carson et al, finding that the cost is $3 billion:  “The State of Alaska provided funding for this study. … All opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the State of Alaska, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, or the authors’ home institutions. The authors bear sole responsibility for any errors or omissions.”

Do Illinois Pensioners and Taxpayers Know the True Value of Public Pensions?

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Sep 28, 2009

Last week I wrote about the (often misguided) debate over the generosity of public pensions in the state of Illinois.  I ended by noting that it was important to further examine how my previous analysis would change once we account for two under-appreciated facts about the Illinois pension system.    

 

The first under-appreciated fact is that Illinois is one of a small number of states that provides an explicit constitutional guarantee against the impairment of pension benefits.  Specifically, Article XIII section 5 of the Illinois State constitution states that: “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State … shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

 

While Illinois is not alone in providing this guarantee – similar language is included in the constitutions of Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan and New York – it should be noted that not all states provide such a guarantee.  In Indiana, for example, the Indiana Court of Appeals (in Haverstock v. State Public Employees Retirement Fund” stated that “pensions are mere gratuities springing from the appreciation and graciousness of the state.”

 

In a paper that I wrote with David Wilcox in the May 2009 American Economic Review, we discuss just how powerful these guarantees have proven to be over the years.  On the basis of that analysis, I am highly confident that Illinois pensioners will receive their benefits.  Unfortunately, with Illinois having one of the worst records of effective governance in the U.S., most other pensioners and participants are not quite so confident.  One way or another, most of them think, the politicians in this state will find some way to renege (at least partially) on these benefits.  (As an aside, what public servants really have reason to be afraid of is that retiree health benefits will disappear – those are not covered by the impairment clause.) 

 

The second underappreciated fact is that the public defined benefit pension plans in Illinois are far too complex for the average (or even the highly sophisticated) participant, taxpayer or legislator to properly value.  There are many reasons for this, but mainly it boils down to the fact that the ultimate benefit depends on a lot of variables that will only be known with certainty many years in the future, such as one’s final average salary.  If that were not complex enough, the legislature has made it even more complicated by having multiple benefit formulas in place.  For example, in the “Traditional” defined benefit plan under the State Universities Retirement System (SURS), participants who joined the system prior to July 2005 received a benefit that was the higher of two approaches.  The first was the standard formula (2.2% times years of service times final average compensation).  The second was a “money purchase” option that essentially kept track of the individual’s contributions, matched them with a state match (at least on paper – we already know the state did not really provide the money), and then credited them with an “Effective Rate of Interest,” or ERI.  Then, at retirement, the “balance” in this largely fictitious account was converted to an annuity using an annuity table that used a rate quite close to the ERI.  If the resulting number was higher than the standard formula, the annuitant gets this higher amount instead. 

 

Confused yet?  If you answered “yes,” don’t feel bad.  Most participants don’t understand all these details.  It is complex stuff that requires a high degree of financial sophistication to truly follow.  If you answer “no,” then let me ask a few extra credit questions.  First, do you know what mean, standard deviation and range the ERI has been in for the last 25 years?  And do you know how the annuity conversion factor compares to market rates?

 

By this point, I suspect very few people know the answer.  Again, don’t feel bad.  I study pensions for a living, and it took me a lot of time and research to find these answers (and, alas, it was too late – by the time I understood all the details, I had already made a sub-optimal pension choice – and it was unfortunately a lifetime irrevocable one!) 

 

Without boring you with details, let me give you a flavor of what I have since learned.  The way the SURS board has historically set the ERI, participants in the DB plan were getting an enormously high return (roughly 8-9%) relative to the risk (as measured by the standard deviation in the ERI, which was tiny over the past 25 years), and this high return was being implicitly guaranteed by the taxpayer.  And the annuity rate?  It is substantially more favorable than even the most attractive private market annuity prices – I’m talking in the range of 50% or more benefits per dollar in the “account,” and in some cases, far more.  These two factors explain why most people retiring from SURS in recent years actually received a higher benefit from the money purchase calculation than the basic formula.

 

What do these two points – the constitutional guarantee and the complexity of the benefit formula – have to do with each other?  Put simply, they have conspired to put an enormous pension funding burden on taxpayers without providing commensurate perceived value to state workers!

 

Let me explain.  As a result of a complex benefit formula that hides the true value of the pensions – combined with the fact that most participants view the DB pension promises as being at some risk of not being honored – means that most public pension participants do not value the pensions at their full economic value.  This fact partially mitigates the point I made last time because this means the “compensating wage differential” will not be dollar-for-dollar. 

 

However, the fact that participants discount their benefits in this way does NOT mean that the state is not actually incurring the full economic costs.  Indeed, the constitutional guarantee means that the states’ taxpayers ARE on the hook for the full economic cost of these benefits.

 

In essence, we have the worst of both worlds.  Public employees are earning a valuable benefit, but because our legislators have (i) created a needlessly complex system, (ii) created a complete lack of confidence in the security of these promises, and (iii) have provided us with a constitutional guarantee that the benefits will be paid, the participants don’t fully value the benefits even though the state bears the full costs.

 

If any private company did this – providing a costly benefit that was valued by employees at less than the true cost to the employer – that company would soon be bankrupt.  But this is Illinois state government.  So, instead, we continue to build up enormous funding liabilities that will simply be passed on to the next generation of Illinois taxpayers.  It may be “business as usual” in Illinois.  But it’s also a real shame.

 

Public servants and taxpayers of Illinois deserve better.

 

The True Size of Government

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Sep 25, 2009

In 2008, the federal government’s receipts were 17% of GNP, and its expenditures including transfer payments were 21.4% of GNP (implying the budget deficit was 4.4% of GNP).  If State and Local taxes and expenditures are added to those numbers, they become 30.5% and 35.2% of GNP, respectively.  For many reasons, however, government’s reach is wider than reflected in those numbers.  Government does not just spend its own tax revenue; it spends other people’s money as well.

For just one example, consider environmental regulations.  I have not seen a recent estimate of the total costs of environmental protection, so I will rely on some older numbers.  Note, however, than none of this discussion is meant to imply that the environment should not be protected!   Maybe protections should be more limited, or expanded.  The point is just that measured dollar expenditure by government does not accurately reflect its true size.

In “The Cost of Clean”, the U.S. EPA in 1990 estimated that the total private cost of required environmental protection was approximately $115 billion (in 1990 dollars) or 2.1% of GNP.  By the year 2000, they said the value could approach 2.8% of GNP.  If I assume the same rate of growth through 2008, then these private costs of environmental protection could be as high as 3.5% of GNP by 2008, a figure that would be $514.0 billion, or 21.6% of non-defense federal expenditures.

This cost of environmental protection comes mainly in the form of mandates imposed on firms.  Examples of mandates include the forced adoption of best practices pollution abatement technology or binding emission rates (e.g. limits on pollution per unit of output).  However, these mandates are just like taxes in two respects.  First, the government imposes these costs on private firms.  Second, the mandates provide “public goods” like clean air and water that we all can enjoy.

In other words, if these costs to private firms were converted into an equivalent tax program with direct government expenditures, then U.S. discretionary spending would appear to be 21.6% higher.  These expenditures do not appear explicitly in the federal budget, so they merit further study.  How do we divide our limited resources between private or public consumption, versus private or public investment?  How much of that environmental spending is in each category?  What are we getting for these outlays?  How can we measure the value of the improved environment?  Do these expenditures provide environmental benefits now, or are they investment in the future?

In order address these questions, a full “environmental budget” would need to show each cost, including the cost of complexity created by mandates.  In addition, some environmental protection programs are required by state and local governments (just like taxes).  Each of the programs has implicit transfers from one state to another, and from one income group to another (just like taxes).  Why are these programs not evaluated just like taxes?

Should a Proposal “Pay for Itself” (and How do We Know if it Does)?

Filed Under (U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Sep 18, 2009

A member of Congress who wants to spend additional money often has to say what tax will be raised to pay for it.  Somebody else who wants a particular tax cut for their favorite lobbyist may have to say what other tax will be raised.  As a general principle, this kind of “budget neutrality” is often a good idea.  In all likelihood, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 only succeeded because it was revenue neutral.  It broadened the tax base and lowered tax rates, to fix the tax system without changing the amount collected.

But how is revenue neutrality calculated?  Politicians on both sides of the aisle call upon the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) as the arbiter of budget balance.  If important policy choices must pass the CBO’s litmus test, then we need to understand what test is being administered.  According to its website, the “CBO’s [cost estimate] statement must also include an assessment of what funding is authorized in the bill to cover the costs of the mandates and, for intergovernmental mandates, an estimate of the appropriations needed to fund such authorizations for up to 10 years after the mandate is effective” (http://www.cbo.gov/CEBackground.shtml).  This CBO test has a few major problems that could limit the benefits from a policy, or even prevent enactment of a good policy.

First of all, not every act of Congress must be revenue neutral.  But policymakers may want the restriction of revenue neutrality, in order to “prove” they are fiscally responsible.  Recently, President Obama in his health care policy speech to a joint session of Congress promised that he “will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits — either now or in the future.”  Thus, one general problem is: who decides which projects must be revenue neutral?

Second, of course, a project may generate revenue or cost savings after ten years.  President Obama’s health care reform has initial start up costs, but it may “bend” the long-run cost curve for federal expenditures on Medicare and Medicaid, so that cost savings accrue and accumulate over more than ten years.  In general, the CBO’s ten-year balance sheet could say that a policy adds to the debt over ten years, even though it may save taxpayer dollars in the long-run.  On Wednesday, September 16, 2009, the CBO released its official cost estimate for the Senate Finance Committee’s draft health care bill, stating that it would have a “net reduction in federal budget deficits of $49 billion over the 2010–2019 period” (http://cboblog.cbo.gov/?p=354).  However, an additional, unofficial estimate by the CBO concluded that the “the added revenues and cost savings are projected to grow more rapidly than the cost of the coverage expansion”, meaning that over a longer time horizon that the bill further reduces the deficits.

To be clear, the federal debt is a real concern.  Running massive deficits that pile up year after year is unsustainable and irresponsible.  But a strict CBO ten-year cost estimate test may not be the best way to evaluate a potential policy change.

A third problem is that any such test must be somewhat arbitrary, regarding what is counted as “revenue”.  Does it just count actual dollars flowing into government coffers?  What about features of a policy that reduce future outflows?  Some pieces of additional spending in proposed health care reforms are intended to improve future heath and thus to avoid the need for some future medical expenses.  The CBO would count current “preventive care” spending as a cost, but it may not count the fact that this current spending could reduce the need for Medicare and Medicaid to pay for some future medical procedures.

Fourth, and most importantly, even if NOT revenue-neutral, SOME policies are still valuable, important, and worthwhile.  A project may have generalized benefit to everybody in society that exceeds the actual social cost, meaning that it passes a benefit-cost test, even though it requires government spending and is not “revenue neutral”.

Any revenue-neutrality test is a way for policymakers to “tie themselves to the mast” and prevent them from pork spending of the most egregious sort.  Maybe that’s good and worthwhile.  But it may also mean we can’t have some other worthwhile policies either.