Mar 30 2012
Expansionary fiscal policy is a tool governments often turn to when the economy is facing high unemployment and sluggish or negative economic growth. Cutting taxes and increasing government spending can contribute to the overall demand in the economy and thereby lead to job creation and economic growth.
One of the oldest arguments against stimulus, however, is that which says when a government borrows money to pay for such a policy, it can lead to a decrease in private investment and a decrease in future demand as the higher level of debt must be paid back in the future. Short-term stimulus, therefore, is counter-productive since any debts incurred must be paid back in the future, leading to lower levels of spending and therefore higher unemployment sometime down the road.
In a new paper* written with Brad DeLong of the University of California, Berkeley, Mr Summers, now at Harvard after a stint as Barack Obama’s chief economic adviser, says that in the odd circumstances America faces today temporary stimulus “may actually be self-financing”…
Mr DeLong and Mr Summers are careful to say stimulus almost never pays for itself. When the economy is near full employment, deficits crowd out private spending and investment. In a recession the central bank will respond to fiscal stimulus by keeping interest rates higher than they would otherwise be. Both effects mean that in normal times the fiscal “multiplier”—the amount by which output rises for each dollar of government spending or tax cuts—is probably close to zero.
The “multiplier” referred to here is what economist refer to as the Keynesian spending multiplier, which is based on the theory that any increase in spending in an economy (say, through a new government spending package), will lead to further increases in spending (as households feel more confident and firms start to hire workers again), therefore the final change in national income resulting from a fiscal policy will be greater than the initial change in spending itself. This multiplier effect has formed the basis of the argument for expansionary fiscal policy since Keynes articulated it in the 1930’s.
The multiplier effect is explained in detail in the following video lesson:
If the multiplier is ZERO, there is no point in engaging in expansionary fiscal policies since there will be no additional increase in output as a government goes into debt to pay for a tax cut or an increase in spending. In the US today, argue Summers and Delong, the multiplier is probably not zero. Additionally, crowding-out is unlikely to occur.
Such constraints are not present now (meaning in the United States in 2012). Investment and demand are deeply depressed and the central bank, having cut interest rates to zero, is not about to raise them. The multiplier is higher than usual as a result…
Basically, Summers and Delong are trying to argue that the US government should engage in another round of fiscal stimulus, to offer additional support to the economy beyond 2009’s “Obama stimulus” and the current bill being debated in Washington, the American Jobs Act, a $470 billion tax cut and spending bill aimed at keeping unemployment from rising in America.
On one side of this debate are those like Summers and Delong who argue fiscal stimulus can pay for itself since it can leads to a larger increase in GDP than the increase in the government’s budget deficit needed to finance the stimulus. On the other side are those “deficit hawks” who believe that any increase in government debt will lead to a fall in current and future aggregate demand from the private sector, and therefore expansionary fiscal policies will just be crowded out by declining private sector spending.
By understanding the circumstances in which crowding-out is most likely and unlikely to occur, we should be able to make a more informed decision about future fiscal policy decisions. As these two economists argue, and as I have tried to present in this post and in a previous post A Closer Look at the Crowding-out Effect, today’s economy provides policy-makers with the perfect opportunity to stimulate aggregate demand by increasing the deficit and providing the US economy with the boost in demand it needs to get America back to full employment.
- Why is crowding-out more likely to occur when an economy is already producing at or near its full employment level of output than when an economy is in recession?
- How are the theories of crowding-out and the multiplier effect used to argue for two different sides in the debate over the use of expansionary fiscal policy?
- Why might a government deficit, paid for with borrowed money, lead to an expectation of a future increase in taxes?
- Do you believe the government should take action during periods of economic hardship, or should it just get out of the way and let the economy “correct itself”?