Reading: The Standardized Employment Deficit or Surplus

The Standardized Employment Deficit or Surplus

Each year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) calculates the standardized employment budget—that is, what the budget deficit or surplus would be if the economy were producing at potential GDP, where people who look for work were finding jobs in a reasonable period of time and businesses were making normal profits, with the result that both workers and businesses would be earning more and paying more taxes.


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In effect, the standardized employment deficit eliminates the impact of the automatic stabilizers. Figure 16.13 compares the actual budget deficits of recent decades with the CBO’s standardized deficit.

The graph shows how the standardized deficit surplus and the actual deficit surplus have changed since 1970. Both lines tend to rise and fall at similar times. The only time both were positive numbers was between the mid-1990s and early 2000s. As of 2009, both standardized deficit surplus and actual deficit surplus had dropped to their lowest amount, both below –6%.

Figure 16.13. Comparison of Actual Budget Deficits with the Standardized Employment Deficit. When the economy is in recession, the standardized employment budget deficit is less than the actual budget deficit because the economy is below potential GDP, and the automatic stabilizers are reducing taxes and increasing spending. When the economy is performing extremely well, the standardized employment deficit (or surplus) is higher than the actual budget deficit (or surplus) because the economy is producing about potential GDP, so the automatic stabilizers are increasing taxes and reducing the need for government spending. (Sources: Actual and Cyclically Adjusted Budget Surpluses/Deficits,; and Economic Report of the President, Table B-1,

Notice that in recession years, like the early 1990s, 2001, or 2009, the standardized employment deficit is smaller than the actual deficit. During recessions, the automatic stabilizers tend to increase the budget deficit, so if the economy was instead at full employment, the deficit would be reduced. However, in the late 1990s the standardized employment budget surplus was lower than the actual budget surplus. The gap between the standardized budget deficit or surplus and the actual budget deficit or surplus shows the impact of the automatic stabilizers. More generally, the standardized budget figures allow you to see what the budget deficit would look like with the economy held constant—at its potential GDP level of output.

Automatic stabilizers occur quickly. Lower wages means that a lower amount of taxes is withheld from paychecks right away. Higher unemployment or poverty means that government spending in those areas rises as quickly as people apply for benefits. However, while the automatic stabilizers offset part of the shifts in aggregate demand, they do not offset all or even most of it. Historically, automatic stabilizers on the tax and spending side offset about 10% of any initial movement in the level of output. This offset may not seem enormous, but it is still useful. Automatic stabilizers, like shock absorbers in a car, can be useful if they reduce the impact of the worst bumps, even if they do not eliminate the bumps altogether.

Self Check: Discretionary and Automatic Fiscal Policy

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