The Fiscal Staircase – not so scary

Mother Jones: The Fiscal Staircase Explained

And, the first two paragraphs from the CBO’s turgidly titled “Economic Effects of Policies Contributing to Fiscal Tightening in 2013:”

Substantial changes to tax and spending policies are scheduled to take effect in January 2013, significantly reducing the federal budget deficit. According to CBO’s projections, if all of that fiscal tightening occurs, real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) will drop by 0.5 percent in 2013 (as measured by the change from the fourth quarter of 2012 to the fourth quarter of 2013)—reflecting a decline in the first half of the year and renewed growth at a modest pace later in the year. That contraction of the economy will cause employment to decline and the unemployment rate to rise to 9.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013. After next year, by the agency’s estimates, economic growth will pick up, and the labor market will strengthen, returning output to its potential level (reflecting a high rate of use of labor and capital) and shrinking the unemployment rate to 5.5 percent by 2018.


Output would be greater and unemployment lower in the next few years if some or all of the fiscal tightening scheduled under current law—sometimes called the fiscal cliff—was removed. However, CBO expects that even if all of the fiscal tightening was eliminated, the economy would remain below its potential and the unemployment rate would remain higher than usual for some time. Moreover, if the fiscal tightening was removed and the policies that are currently in effect were kept in place indefinitely, a continued surge in federal debt during the rest of this decade and beyond would raise the risk of a fiscal crisis (in which the government would lose the ability to borrow money at affordable interest rates) and would eventually reduce the nation’s output and income below what would occur if the fiscal tightening was allowed to take place as currently set by law.

A key point (bolded above) is that unemployment is projected to rise to 9.1% in the fourth quarter, not on January 2. So, resolving the dilemma may be important, even urgent, but there’s no gun being held to the economy’s head, set to fire on Jan. 2. In that way, this situation is very different from the negotiations over the debt ceiling and averting default.