You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Quoth The Budget Director, "nevermore." (updated)

Word has it that Congressional Budget Office director Peter Orszag will be joining the Obama Administration as its budget director. This has potentially major implications for the future of Obama's agenda, for reasons I will explain tomorrow when I have the benefit of some more sleep. For now, though, I'd like to focus on a far less weighty, but no less intriguing, issue: What Orszag's move would mean for the literary quality of future Obama administration policy reports.

Yes, that's right--literary quality. You see, one of Orszag's lesser known accomplishments is the inclusion of actual poetry in a CBO report, quite possibly for the first time ever.

Anybody who has ever curled up with a CBO report on, say, the long-term budgetary impications of Defense Department procurement reform can appreciate the enormity of this breakthrough. Graphs, charts, figures, economic citations--CBO reports have plenty of those. But lines of poetry? Uh uh.

And yet there, on page 34 of a July report on infrastructure spending, were a few lines of verse, buried in a footnote explaining a new method for calculating asset depreciation:

The longer a capital asset is assumed to last, the lower the depreciation cost that would be included in the budget in any given year. Besides the assumed lifetimes, the depreciation schedules for such assets would also reflect assumptions about how quickly or gradually the assets’ performance declined over time. The extreme case would be what economists have sometimes called "one-hoss shay" performance. The phrase derives from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem "The Deacon’s Masterpiece or, the Wonderful ‘One-hoss Shay,’" which depicts a vehicle that worked perfectly throughout its lifetime but then "went to pieces all at once,/ All at once, and nothing first,/ Just as bubbles do when they burst."

To be clear, this was no accidental outbreak of whimsy. The reference had a complicated backstory, which Orszag explained on his blog:

attentive readers will note that in what I believe to be a first for CBO, the testimony includes a few lines of poetry (see footnote 47). These lines appear in response to a comment from David Brooks of the New York Times at a public forum that CBO reports don’t have enough “romance” in them; when I asked him what he possibly meant by that comment, he suggested that CBO documents could include some poetry. Footnote 47 was the best we could do for now.

Orszag's appointment is not yet official. But OMB staffers may want to brush up on their Poe and Whitman, just to be safe. 

Update: In the feedback section, reader ironyroad suggests an Auden passage that's relevant to the budget debate. Any others? Winner gets a one-year subscription to the CBO online listserv.

--Jonathan Cohn