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Monday, May 02, 2011

Sustainable Fiscal Policy

Paul Krugman mentioned that he has called for the government to run a surplus in the past (see here too):

For readers who ask for an example of yours truly advocating budget surpluses: here’s an example.

As I struggle to find a decent internet connection at the Conference, here's something on this topic from 2005, long before the current recession hit. It makes the point that if we truly want to be faithful to Keynesian economics, then we must run surpluses during the good times to offset the deficits that are used to lift the economy during the bad times:

Using Fiscal Policy to Stabilize the Economy: ... To use fiscal policy to stabilize the economy..., you have to spend more or tax less in the bad times (increase the deficit) and then do the hard thing which is to raise taxes or cut spending in the good times (decrease the deficit).  To keep the budget in balance the good has to be matched somewhere by the bad.  If you cut taxes for this disaster, or this recession, or this war, and don’t raise them later, what do you do next time?  Cut again?  Okay, what about the time after that?  It won’t work forever.  The priming of the economy during the bad times must be matched by a slowdown during the good.  Borrow when income is low, pay it back when income is high. 

Furthermore, in stabilization policy, it’s also not possible in the long-run to use both government spending and taxation at opposite points in the business cycle.  That is, suppose you cut taxes during the bad times, then cut spending during the good times to pay it back.  That will work for a recession or two, a hurricane or two, but it won’t work forever because eventually there will be nothing left to cut out of government.  The opposite will not work forever either.  If you increase spending during the bad times then increase taxes during the good, the size of government will grow indefinitely over the long-run.  In more graphic form:

G↑ (rec) → T↑ (boom) →  G↑ (rec)→  T↑ (boom)  → G↑  (rec) → T↑ (boom)  →  bloated government

T↓ (rec) → G↓ (boom) →  T↓ (rec)→  G↓ (boom)  → T↓ (rec) → G↓ (boom)  →  no government

These two policies, or some combination of them (increase G and cut T in recessions, do the opposite in booms) are sustainable:

G↑ (rec) → G↓ (boom) →  G↑ (rec) →  G↓ (boom)  → G↑ (rec) → G↓ (boom)  →  sustainable size of government

T↓ (rec) → T↑ (boom) →  T↓ (rec) →  T↑ (boom)  → T↓ (rec) → T↑ (boom)  →  sustainable size of government

The Democrats are accused of adopting the first strategy and bloating the government.  The Republicans claim to adopt the second strategy to shrink government, but they’ve bloated government themselves (take the second line and change it to T↓ (rec) → G↑ (boom) → etc., a clearly unsustainable path).  Neither party seems willing or able to use either the third and/or the fourth lines as a means of stabilizing the economy.  We are seeing that now, and maybe even less stable budgetary variations.  The WSJ and other members of the GOP seems to advocate T↓ (rec)→ T↓ (boom) → etc. which, without cuts in G, cause deficits rise no matter how much they claim otherwise. 

There are, of course, lots and lots of variations on these basic chains of events, e.g. to adjust the size of government the first or second strategies can be adopted temporarily...  But fiscal policy that is sustainable in the long-run, through recession after recession, natural disaster after natural disaster, war after war, has to adopt some combination of the third and fourth lines.  Simply cutting taxes whenever and wherever possible gets us into the predicament we are now in.  But those who try and adopt responsible budget practices face stiff opposition...

There are certainly places government can be cut or made more efficient.  But cuts alone aren't enough and tax increases of one sort or another are also needed.

    Posted by on Monday, May 2, 2011 at 12:24 PM in Budget Deficit, Economics, Fiscal Policy | Permalink  Comments (40)


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