It’s easy to attack and defend the CBO. You can berate and insult it. You can express gratitude for the hard work of its staff. But how do you say something about the organization that respects the concerns of its critics and the importance of the office?
Here’s how: First, recognize that like any human effort, what the CBO does is not perfect. Of course it has limitations. Of course it could be better. Some critics are right to point out that the CBO’s analysis leaves out aspects of the way the world works. For instance, in the area of health care markets, Yuval Levin writes that the “CBO refuses to estimate the effects of competition on prices—or indeed the effects of any policy on the behavior of consumers or providers.” That’s not a reason to dismantle the CBO. That’s not a reason to insult the hard and important work it does. That’s not a reason to ignore its estimates or believe they are without value. (Levin did no such thing. But others who wish to see the office using more “dynamic scoring” have.)
Pointing out limitations in the CBO’s bag of tricks is, however, the first step in offering something more constructive: funding for more nonpartisan, policy-relevant, empirical research. The CBO’s analysis can only be as complete as the body of work that supports its models and predictive techniques. It grounds its work in the literature, citing much of it in its technical reports. If you think the CBO left something out, chances are good that that aspect of the world has not been well-studied by academics and subject-matter experts either. Or, if it has, the evidence points in conflicting directions. (Another option is that what you think the CBO should include has been found by a substantial body of research not to occur in the real world. This is following the evidence too.)
It’s cliche to say “more research is needed,” but that does not mean it’s wrong. We do need more research in some areas related to CBOs job. One way to get it is to fund it. The fact is, nonpartisan, policy-relevant research is not well-funded. I write from experience that it is very hard to obtain funding for policy studies, let alone support a career doing such work. And it has gotten harder since the economic downturn. Foundations that fund such work are not immune from macroeconomics.
If every politician or pundit who criticized the CBO for how it arrives at budget numbers also supported non-partisan financing of studies that improved how CBO did its job, I’d be more interested in hearing the criticism. Talk is cheap. Policy-relevant, empirical research is not.