Turning the 'fiscal cliff' into a gentle slope

Economists and policymakers worry that the recovering US economy won't be able to handle the amount of deficit reduction headed its way in the coming months. It can;t be avoided, but it can be made easier to overcome.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
This November 2011 file photo shows the U.S. Capitol building in Washington. Rogers argues that steep budget cuts to reduce the deficit are unavoidable, but steps can be taken to make the cuts gentler on a recovering economy.

The Congressional Budget Office has just released an excellent analysis prepared by CBO economist Ben Page on the “Economic Effects of Reducing the Fiscal Restraint That Is Scheduled to Occur in 2013″ (in typically dry CBO-speak).  I prefer to think of it as an economics version of the story “The Little Engine That Could.”  You see, the “engine” is the U.S. economy, and this so-called “fiscal cliff” is, rather than something we are in danger of falling off of, something we are about to ram straight into–like a huge wall just ahead on the tracks, at January 2013.  When economists and policymakers fret about this fiscal cliff, it’s not the usual worrying about the unsustainable deficits we are projected to run over the next several decades; it’s concern that our economy, still in “recovery,” can’t handle the amount of deficit reduction that is scheduled to be forced upon us in just a matter of months.

The CBO analysis validates this worry, first defining the scale of the cliff as $607 billion worth of deficit reduction in one year (or $560 billion net of economic feedback, cutting the deficit nearly in half between fiscal years 2012 and 2013), then explaining that letting our economy run head onto this cliff will in fact, slow it down and perhaps even cause the “double-dip recession” economists have been fearing.  From the summary (emphasis added):

Under those fiscal conditions, which will occur under current law, growth in real (inflation-adjusted) GDP in calendar year 2013 will be just 0.5 percent, CBO expects—with the economy projected to contract at an annual rate of 1.3 percent in the first half of the year and expand at an annual rate of 2.3 percent in the second half. Given the pattern of past recessions as identified by the National Bureau of Economic Research, such a contraction in output in the first half of 2013 would probably be judged to be a recession.

So CBO then looks at the question: what if we could avoid the cliff entirely–by sort of going around it?  Well, going around it would indeed keep us going in 2013:

CBO analyzed what would happen if lawmakers changed fiscal policy in late 2012 to remove or offset all of the policies that are scheduled to reduce the federal budget deficit by 5.1 percent of GDP between calendar years 2012 and 2013. In that case, CBO estimates, the growth of real GDP in calendar year 2013 would lie in a broad range around 4.4 percent, well above the 0.5 percent projected for 2013 under current law.

So that sounds, good: if we can’t go through the fiscal cliff, just go around it (or just say “poof” and imagine it away).  OK, I’ll take that ticket… Except, as CBO next explains, then the inevitable (real) “cliffs” ahead just get taller and steeper:

However, eliminating or reducing the fiscal restraint scheduled to occur next year without imposing comparable restraint in future years would reduce output and income in the longer run relative to what would occur if the scheduled fiscal restraint remained in place. If all current policies were extended for a prolonged period, federal debt held by the public—currently about 70 percent of GDP, its highest mark since 1950—would continue to rise much faster than GDP.

Such a path for federal debt could not be sustained indefinitely, and policy changes would be required at some point. The more that debt increased before policies were changed, the greater would be the negative consequences—for the nation’s future output and income, for the burden imposed by interest payments on the federal debt, for policymakers’ ability to use tax and spending policies to respond to unexpected challenges, and for the likelihood of a sudden fiscal crisis. And the longer the necessary adjustments in policies were delayed, the more uncertain individuals and businesses would be about future government policies, and the more drastic the ultimate changes in policy would need to be.

You see, even over the longer term, the “fiscal cliff” is more like one we will have to climb rather than one we’re in danger of falling off of.  And the higher the cliff gets, the harder it will be in the future to ignore it or continue to go around it, or actually get up it.  So going around and avoiding the cliff entirely isn’t a long-term option, nor necessarily the best option even now.  CBO explains the policy options, which I’m labeling as different strategies for driving the train called the U.S. economy toward the 2013 fiscal train stop.  The CBO concludes that there are three basic options (my labels and emphasis added):

What Might Policymakers Do Under These Circumstances?

[1: "Going Around the Cliff, For Now"]  They could address the short-term economic challenge by eliminating or reducing the fiscal restraint scheduled to occur next year without imposing comparable restraint in future years—but that would have substantial economic costs over the longer run.

[2: "Running Head-On Into the Cliff"]  Alternatively, they could move rapidly to address the longer-run budgetary problem by allowing the full measure of fiscal restraint now embodied in current law to take effect next year—but that would have substantial economic costs in the short run. Or,

[3: "Grading the Cliff Into a Climbable Hill"]  if policymakers wanted to minimize the short-run costs of narrowing the deficit very quickly while also minimizing the longer-run costs of allowing large deficits to persist, they could enact a combination of policies: changes in taxes and spending that would widen the deficit in 2013 relative to what would occur under current law but that would reduce deficits later in the decade relative to what would occur if current policies were extended for a prolonged period.

In other words, the U.S. economy does face an “uphill battle” in terms of the fiscal outlook; heading to higher ground (meaning lower deficits), eventually, is unavoidable.  But to quote from a particularly wise engine, “I think [we] can” do it.  The 2013 fiscal cliff is at least an opportunity to take a constructive attitude toward climbing that hill, and hopefully our policymakers, after the election, might have the wisdom and courage and work ethic needed to start turning that fiscal cliff into something our economy can more easily and successfully climb.

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