Travel day, so a quick one:
How Big Should Government Be?, by Justin Fox: There are a couple of fundamental questions at the bottom of Washington's ongoing battles over deficits and debt: (1) How big should the U.S. government to be? and (2) How should we pay for it? The answers to both will ultimately have to be political ones — messy calculations based on who pays, who benefits, who votes, and who makes the campaign contributions. But it would be nice to know what the economics are, wouldn't it?
It turns out economists have lots of theories of optimal government spending and optimal taxation. This isn't the same as saying they have reliable or consistent answers. As one critic wrote of Robert Lucas's American Economic Association presidential address on economic growth in 2003, in which the Nobel laureate cited several studies showing dramatic welfare gains from hypothetical tax cuts in France and the U.S.:
Such findings have two distinctive features. First, they show big numbers. Second, they are not really findings. Contrary to the words offered so traditionally and casually by economists, none of these authors actually 'found' or 'showed' their results. Rather, they chose to imagine the results they announced. In every study Lucas cited here the crucial ingredient was a theoretical model laden with assumptions.
The author of these words is University of California, Davis economic historian Peter Lindert... People on the left love Lindert's conclusion, contained in this shorter working paper, that the rise in spending (and accompanying taxation) has not carried with it the costs predicted by neoclassical economic theories such as the ones wielded by Lucas. But those on the right love his explanation that this is mostly because countries with high social spending have tax systems that appear to have been designed by a neoclassical economist: with low progressivity, low taxes on capital, and big value-added taxes on consumption. ...