Red Ink Red Alert

Sunday, March 22, 2009

THE NEW estimates by the Congressional Budget Office showing a federal deficit of 13.1 percent of gross domestic product for the current budget year, which began Oct. 1, are neither surprising nor particularly alarming, though it's larger than the 12.3 percent foreseen by the White House. Both are stunning numbers -- far and away the largest deficit ratio since World War II. But spending rises in recessions and tax revenue falls, and we're in a big recession. It would be counterproductive to balance the budget in this historic downturn. The huge deficit includes $700 billion for a necessary rescue of the financial sector. Nor is it shocking that the CBO forecasts a deficit of 9.6 percent of GDP in fiscal 2010 if Congress enacts President Obama's $3.6 trillion budget plan -- a deficit also much larger than what the president predicted. The difference largely reflects the CBO's economic forecast, which is more up-to-date and, hence, gloomier than the one Mr. Obama relied on.

What is scary, though, is the CBO's depiction of the remaining years of the president's term, and the half-decade after that -- if his budget is enacted. In none of those years would the federal deficit fall below 4.1 percent of GDP -- and it would be stuck at 5.7 percent of GDP in 2019. This is in stark contrast to the president's projection: that his plan would get the deficit down to about 3 percent or so of GDP by that time. It's true, as Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told us, that the CBO's forecasts are subject to large margins of error, especially in the out years. And Mr. Orszag is correct to point out that, even under the CBO's scenario, the deficit as a share of GDP would decline by half under Mr. Obama.

Still, it's less significant to meet that target than to keep the deficits within sustainable bounds, and few experts believe that years of deficits above 4 percent of GDP are consistent with long-term economic vitality. If the CBO's numbers are subject to revision on account of changing circumstances, then so are the administration's; and those were based on very rosy economic assumptions to begin with. Very little of the claimed deficit reduction in the Obama plan comes from policy changes; it results more or less automatically from the assumed end of the recession, as well as by claiming savings in reducing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from unrealistically high forecasts. Yet both the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that the CBO report is no reason to revise the president's ambitious tax and spending blueprint.

Mr. Obama should treat the CBO report as an incentive to fulfill his repeated promises, during and after the campaign, to make hard choices on the budget. Until now he has offered a host of new spending -- on health care, middle-class tax cuts, education and alternative energy -- without calling for much sacrifice from anyone except the top 5 percent of the income scale. Though his emphasis on controlling health-care costs is welcome, it's not a substitute for reforming the entitlement programs that are the drivers of long-term fiscal crisis, Medicare and Social Security. Yet the president has offered no plan for either and no road map even for achieving a plan. Several members of his own party in the Senate have been expressing doubts about his strategy, and the CBO report will lend credibility to their concerns. He should heed them.

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