Pluralistic: Elizabeth Warren on weaponized budget models (04 Apr 2023)

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A disembodied hand, floating in space. It holds a Univac mainframe computer. The computer is shooting some kind of glowing red rays that are zapping three US Capitol Buildings, suspended on hovering platforms. In the background, the word NO is emblazoned in a retrocomputing magnetic ink font, limned in red.

Elizabeth Warren on weaponized budget models (permalink)

In yesterday's essay, I broke down the new series from The American Prospect on the hidden ideology and power of budget models, these being complex statistical systems for weighing legislative proposals to determine if they are "economically sound." The assumptions baked into these models are intensely political, and, like all dirty political actors, the model-makers claim they are "empirical" while their adversaries are "doing politics":

Today edition of the Prospect continues the series with an essay by Elizabeth Warren, describing how her proposal for universal child care was defeated by the incoherent, deeply political assumptions of the Congressional Budget Office's model, blocking an important and popular policy simply because "computer says no":

When the Build Back Better bill was first mooted, it included a promise of universal, federally funded childcare. This was excised from the final language of the bill (renamed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill), because the CBO said it would cost too much: $381.5b over ten years.

This is a completely nonsensical number, and the way that CBO arrived at it is illuminating, throwing the ideology of CBO modeling into stark relief. You see, the price tag for universal childcare did not include the benefits of childcare!

As Warren points out, this is not how investment works. No business leader assesses their capital expenditures without thinking of the dividends from those investments. No firm decides whether to open a new store by estimating the rent and salaries and ignoring the sales it will generate. Any business that operates on that basis would never invest in anything.

Universal childcare produces enormous dividends. Kids who have access to high-quality childcare grow up to do better in school, have less trouble with the law, and earn more as adults. Mothers who can't afford childcare, meanwhile, absent themselves from the workforce during their prime earning years. Those mothers are less likely to advance professionally, have lower lifetime earnings, and a higher likelihood of retiring without adequate savings.

What's more, universal childcare is the only way to guarantee a living wage to childcare workers, who are disproportionately likely to rely on public assistance, including SNAP (AKA food stamps) to make ends meet. These stressors affect childcare workers' job performance, and also generate public expenditures to keep those workers fed and housed.

But the CBO model does not include any of those benefits. As Warren says, in a CBO assessment, giving every kid in America decent early childhood care and every childcare worker a living wage produces the same upside as putting $381.5 billion in a wheelbarrow and setting it on fire.

This is by design. Congress has decreed that CBO assessments can't factor in secondary or indirect benefits from public expenditure. This is bonkers. Public investment is all secondary and indirect benefits – from highways to broadband, from parks to training programs, from education to Medicare. Excluding indirect benefits from assessments of public investments is a literal, obvious, unavoidable recipe for ending the most productive and beneficial forms of public spending.

It means that – for example – a CBO score for Meals on Wheels for seniors is not permitted to factor in the Medicare savings from seniors who can age in their homes with dignity, rather than being warehoused at tremendous public expense in nursing homes.

It means that the salaries of additional IRS enforcers can only be counted as an expense – Congress isn't allowed to budget for the taxes that those enforcers will recover.

And, of course, it's why we can't have Medicare For All. Private health insurers treat care as an expense, with no upside. Denying you care and making you sicker isn't a bug as far as the health insurance industry is concerned – it's a feature. You bear the expense of the sickness, after all, and they realize the savings from denying you care.

But public health programs can factor in those health benefits and weigh them against health costs – in theory, at least. However, if the budgeting process refuses to factor in "indirect" benefits – like the fact that treating your chronic illness lets you continue to take care of your kids and frees your spouse from having to quit their job to look after you – then public health care costings become indistinguishable from the private sector's for-profit death panels.

Child care is an absolute bargain. The US ranks 33d out of 37 rich countries in terms of public child care spending, and in so doing, it kneecaps innumerable mothers' economic prospects. The upside of providing care is enormous, far outweighing the costs – so the CBO just doesn't weigh them.

Warren is clear that there's no way to make public child care compatible with CBO scoring. Even when she whittled away at her bill, excluding millions of families who would have benefited from the program, the CBO still flunked it.

The current budget-scoring system was designed for people who want to "shrink government until it fits in a bathtub, and then drown it." It is designed so that we can't have nice things. It is designed so that the computer always says no.

Warren calls for revisions to the CBO model, to factor in those indirect benefits that are central to public spending. She also calls for greater diversity in CBO oversight, currently managed by a board of 20 economists and only two non-economists – and the majority of the economists got their PhDs from the same program and all hew to the same orthodoxy.

For all its pretense of objectivity, modeling is a subjective, interpretive discipline. If all your modelers are steeped in a single school, they will incinerate the uncertainty and caveats that should be integrated into every modeler's conclusions, the humility that comes from working with irreducible uncertainty.

Finally, Warren reminds us that there are values that are worthy of consideration, beyond a dollars-and-cents assessment. Even though programs like child care pay for themselves, that's not the only reason to favor them – to demand them. Child care creates "an America in which everyone has opportunities – and 'everyone' includes mamas." Child care is "an investment in care workers, treating them with respect for the hard work they do."

The CBO's assassination of universal child care is exceptional only because it was a public knifing. As David Dayen and Rakeen Mabud wrote in their piece yesterday, nearly all of the CBO's dirty work is done in the dark, before a policy is floated to the public:

The entire constellation of political possibility has been blotted out by the CBO, so that when we gaze up at the sky, we can only see a few sickly stars – weak economic nudges like pricing pollution, and not the glittering possibilities of banning it. We see the faint hope of "bending the cost-curve" on health care, and not the fierce light of simply providing care.

We can do politics. We have done it before. Every park and every highway, our libraries and our schools, our ports and our public universities – these were created by people no smarter than us. They didn't rely on a lost art to do their work. We know how they did it. We know what's stopping us from doing it again. And we know what to do about it.

Hey look at this (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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