Sep 29 2009
How big is the government spending multiplier in America? Well, it depends on which economist you ask…
What is the goal of fiscal stimulus during a recession? Is it simply to increase nation’s total income by a certain amount determined by how much a government increases its own spending by? If this were the case, then an $800 billion stimulus package, like the one begun this year in the US, would lead to a total increase in national income of, well, exactly $800 billion.
While such an outcome is possible, it is not the desired outcome of the Obama administration and the economists who have supported the use of expansionary fiscal policy during economic downturns (i.e. the Keynesian school of economists). Keynesians expect that an initial increase in government spending (or a decrease in taxes) will result in households and firms increasing their own consumption and investment, meaning successive increases in spending. The initial change in spending ultimately gets multiplied through further rounds of spending. The total change in national income resulting from an initial change in government spending or taxes depends on the size of the fiscal multiplier. Now, this is where things get tricky! From the Economist:
The size of the multiplier is bound to vary according to economic conditions. For an economy operating at full capacity, the fiscal multiplier should be zero. Since there are no spare resources, any increase in government demand would just replace spending elsewhere. But in a recession, when workers and factories lie idle, a fiscal boost can increase overall demand. And if the initial stimulus triggers a cascade of expenditure among consumers and businesses, the multiplier can be well above one.
The above scenario, where an economy is operating below full-employment and government spending puts the nation’s idle resources to work, creates new income and further increases private spending, is precisely what the Obama team and its economists hope will happen in the US economy soon. A multiplier of above one means the $800 billion will ultimately increase America’s national income by something greater than $800 billion!
The multiplier is also likely to vary according to the type of fiscal action. Government spending on building a bridge may have a bigger multiplier than a tax cut if consumers save a portion of their tax windfall. A tax cut targeted at poorer people may have a bigger impact on spending than one for the affluent, since poorer folk tend to spend a higher share of their income.
Crucially, the overall size of the fiscal multiplier also depends on how people react to higher government borrowing. If the government’s actions bolster confidence and revive animal spirits, the multiplier could rise as demand goes up and private investment is “crowded in”. But if interest rates climb in response to government borrowing then some private investment that would otherwise have occurred could get “crowded out”. And if consumers expect higher future taxes in order to finance new government borrowing, they could spend less today. All that would reduce the fiscal multiplier, potentially to below zero.
Herein lies the controversy about the effectiveness of deficit-financed fiscal stimulus. Several posts on this blog have focused on the neo-classical, supply-side economists’ fears that expansionary fiscal policy financed by government borrowing will drive up interest rates to private borrowers, thereby “crowding-out” private investment, off-setting any expansion in output achieved through government spending. In the Keynesian model, however, it is precisely because interest rates have bottomed out at the “zero bound” (according to Paul Krugman) that government borrowing and spending will not lead to crowding-out, rather could actually increase investors’ willingness to spend (their “animal spirits”) on new capital, actually “crowding-in” private investment.
Alas, the debate continues. The ironic thing is that even years from now, after all of Obama’s stimulus money has been spent, and the US economy is either fully recovered or it is not, we still won’t know how large the fiscal multiplier was, since tomorrow’s economists will find it nearly impossible to isolate the variable of the $800 billion of government spending and determine just how much of America’s growth in income can be attributed to government spending, and how much resulted from automatic stabilizers built-in to help the economy recover on its own during recessions.
- Why do tax cuts for the rich tend to have a smaller multiplier effect than tax cuts for lower income households?
- How can government borrowing drive up interest rates, and why is this a concern to policy makers deciding on the size of a fiscal stimulus package?
- What are the animal spirits the article mentions? Where have you heard this expression before?
- Do you think borrowing trillions of dollars and spending it to put people back to work and try to dig the US economy out of recession is wise, or should the US government be practicing better fiscal responsibility?
About the author: Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author
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