off the charts

“Generational Accounting” Spreads Confusion

“Generational accounting” purports to compare the effects of federal budget policies on people born in different years.  But, contrary to economist Lawrence Kotlikoff’s New York Times op-ed promoting a bill requiring federal agencies to adopt the practice, generational accounting is far more likely to obscure than illuminate the budget picture. Kotlikoff helped develop generational accounting over 20 years ago.  It was supposed to provide useful information missing from standard budget presentations.  It doesn’t do that, however, and few budget analysts use the approach. Generational accounting rests on several highly unrealistic assumptions, as our detailed analysis explains.  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).  It also 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, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 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.