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Friday, January 23, 2009

"Does Stimulus Stimulate?"

Bruce Bartlett:

Does Stimulus Stimulate?, by Bruce Bartlett, Forbes.com: ...The [Great Depression] didn't really end until both monetary and fiscal policy became expansive with the onset of World War II. At that point, no one worried any more about budget deficits, and the Fed pegged interest rates to ensure that they stayed low, increasing the money supply as necessary to achieve this goal.

It was then and only then that the Great Depression truly ended. As a consequence, economists concluded that an expansive monetary and fiscal policy, which had been advocated by economist John Maynard Keynes throughout the 1930s, was the key to getting out of a depression.

Keynes was right, but many of his followers weren't. They thought that budget deficits would stimulate growth under all circumstances, not just those of a deflationary depression. When this medicine was applied inappropriately, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, the result was inflation.

Economists then concluded that it was a mistake to pursue countercyclical fiscal policy, and the idea of "fine-tuning" became a derogatory term. ...

In the 1980s and 1990s, economists came around to the view that only monetary policy could act quickly enough to reverse or moderate a recession. ... [But...] As we have seen, the Fed could not prevent the greatest financial downturn the world has seen since 1929. This has revived the idea that fiscal policy must be the engine that pulls us out.

Somewhat surprisingly, there has been rather heated opposition to the very principle of fiscal stimulus... We have now had several tests of the Keynesian idea--most recently with last year's $300 tax rebate... According to a new paper by University of Michigan economists Matthew Shapiro and Joel Slemrod, only a third of the money was spent, thus providing very little "bang for the buck."

The failure of rebates has shifted the focus to public works and other direct spending measures as a means of stimulating aggregate spending. A study by Obama administration economists Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein predicts that the stimulus plan being debated in Congress will raise the gross domestic product by $1.57 for every $1 spent.

Such a multiplier effect has been heavily criticized by a number of top economists, including John Taylor of Stanford, Gary Becker and Eugene Fama of the University of Chicago and Greg Mankiw and Robert Barro of Harvard. The gist of their argument is that the government cannot expand the economy through deficit spending because it has to borrow the funds in the first place, thus displacing other economic activities. In the end, the government has simply moved around economic activity without increasing it in the aggregate.

Other reputable economists have criticized this position as being no different from the pre-Keynesian view that helped make the Great Depression so long and deep. Paul Krugman of Princeton, Brad DeLong of the University of California at Berkeley and Mark Thoma of the University of Oregon have been outspoken in their belief that theory and experience show that government spending can expand the economy under conditions such as we are experiencing today.

I think the critics of an activist fiscal policy are forgetting the essential role of monetary policy as it relates to fiscal policy. As Keynes was very clear about, the whole point of fiscal stimulus is to mobilize monetary policy and inject liquidity into the economy. This is necessary when nominal interest rates get very low, as they are now, because Fed policy becomes impotent. Keynes called this a liquidity trap, and I think there is strong evidence that we are in one right now.

The problem is that fiscal stimulus needs to be injected right now to counter the liquidity trap. If that were the case, I think we might well get a very high multiplier effect this year. But if much of the stimulus doesn't come online until next year, when we are likely to be past the worst of the slowdown, then crowding out will greatly diminish the effectiveness of the stimulus, just as the critics argue. ... Thus the argument really boils down to a question of timing. ...

For this reason, I think there is a better case for stimulating the economy through tax policy than has been made. Congress can change incentives instantly by, for example, saying that new investments in machinery and equipment made after today would qualify for a 10% Investment Tax Credit...

Stimulus based on private investment also has the added virtue of establishing a foundation for future growth, whereas consumption spending does not. As economist Hal Varian of the University of California at Berkeley recently put it, "Private investment is what makes possible future increases in production and consumption. Investment tax credits or other subsidies for private sector investment are not as politically appealing as tax cuts for consumers or increases in government expenditure. But if private investment doesn't increase, where will the extra consumption come from in the future?"

I don't agree with all of this, e.g.  the "government is always the problem" emphasis in the analysis, and casting the debate as a tradeoff between private investment and private consumption rather than between private sector activity (consumption or investment) and public investment overstates the case for private sector solutions. [These arguments from yesterday apply as well.]

I've never objected to tax cuts being part of the package -- I have also argued that the desire for an immediate impact may necessitate some tax cut components in order to maximize the prospects for a faster recovery. And as tax cuts go, there are far worse choices than an investment tax credit. But just as there's a limit to the number of public sector projects that are shovel ready, there's also a limit to the number of private sector projects that are ready to go (though the planning stage does involve some spending, just not as much as when the public or private sector investment projects are going full throttle). There's also a question about how strong the reaction will be to a tax credit when the economic outlook is so gloomy, a question that doesn't arise when government is making the investments. So, sure, let's get as much out of the private sector as we can, but we shouldn't rely solely upon the private sector response to a tax credit to turn things around. It's very unlikely to be enough on its own, and it may not provide much help at all, Thus, even with tax credits, the public sector response - government spending in particular - still needs to be aggressive.

    Posted by on Friday, January 23, 2009 at 12:33 AM in Economics, Fiscal Policy, Taxes | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (29)


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