Archive for the 'Fiscal Policy' Category

Mar 30 2012

Does expansionary fiscal policy “pay for itself”?

A theory of fiscal policy: Self-sustaining stimulus | The Economist

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.

The crowding-out effect of fiscal policy is explained in detail in the following video from The Economics Classroom:

A recent study by two leading American economists provides an argument against this view of the crowding-out effect of fiscal policy:

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.

Discussion Questions:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. Why might a government deficit, paid for with borrowed money, lead to an expectation of a future increase in taxes?
  4. 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”?

2 responses so far

Sep 23 2011

Fiscal stimulus, the Swiss way

Parliament gives green light to government economic boost plan. – swissinfo

In the last two weeks, both my countries, America and Switzerland, have put forward stimulus packages aimed at helping their economies avoid entering a second recession. The US American Jobs Act, announced by President Obama to the US people two weeks ago today, will provide relief to American businesses and households mostly in the form of tax cuts. Some new spending on infrastructure, primarily schools and transportation, is provided, as is continued relief for unemployed Americans.

The chart below shows how the American Jobs Act plans to spend the proposed $447 billion. 

Clearly, the largest single category of spending proposed by the AJA is in the form of tax cuts for American households and firms (a combined 54.8% of the total). The purpose of tax cuts, of course, is to provide households with more disposable income with the hope that household consumption will increase, thereby increasing demand for goods, services, and ultimately labor, which would bring down unemployment. Businesses will also enjoy a cut in the taxes they pay when employing workers, so the costs to firms that hire new workers will be lower if the bill is passed. Extending benefits to workers who are already unemployed makes up a relatively small component of the American stimulus plan, while infrastructure and education spending, both which contribute to the long-run growth potential of the US economy, make up less than a third of the $447 billion package.

Let’s now look at the Swiss stimulus package, approved by the Swiss parliament today following a debate that lasted just seven hours. (For comparison, the American Jobs Act will require months of deliberation and when it is ultimately passed will likely have been completely modified by the American congress). The chart below shows where the $950 million of spending announced by Switzerland will be spent.

The biggest difference, as can be seen, is that a full 57.5% of the Swiss stimulus comes as relief for unemployed Swiss workers, compared to just 14% of America’s package. The 24.4% spent on research and development will go towards “a research and innovation programme, helping to translate ideas into successful business plans.” The subsidies for Switzerland’s tourist industry will come in the form of low-interest loans to businesses in the hotel and travel industry, which has been adversely affected by the recent appreciation of the Swiss franc, which has reduced tourism in Switzerland as Europeans and others have found it more expensive to travel to the country in recent months. Tourism is one of the largest sectors in the Swiss job market, so the spending on unemployment benefits will bring direct relief to individuals affected by that industry.

To compare the two country’s stimulus packages (America’s is only in the proposal stage, while Switzerland’s has been approved and will begin being implemented soon), is a study in two different economic philosophies. One major difference is the obvious lack of tax cuts in the Swiss plan. Such cuts were proposed by the conservative party in Switzerland, but the country’s finance minister, supported by the center-left party, argued that “tax policy should not be shaped by the current monetary situation.” She is referring to the fact that Switzerland’s stimulus in needed in response to the strong Swiss franc, not due to any underlying problems in the Swiss economy. The Swiss plan targets relief directly at those industries affected by the strong currency, tourism and high skilled manufacturing, which stands to benefit from increased spending on R&D. 

The US plan, on the other hand, includes over $240 billion (almost 55% of the total) in tax cuts, which while they do increase households’ disposable incomes, do very little to guarantee an increase in total spending in the economy. The last two rounds of stimulus in the United States, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the 2008 tax rebate program under George W. Bush, both included significant tax cuts to Americans (all of the Bush stimulus was a tax refund). Neither of these packages produced much growth for the United States, although the ARRA likely prevented unemployment from rising higher than it would have without a stimulus.

Switzerland’s plan includes no tax cuts, instead it offers direct support to particular industries in the form of government spending, and helps unemployed workers continue to spend and contribute to aggregate demand by maintaining their incomes during their period of unemployment. Switzerland’s stimulus, it could be argued, is more of a demand-side fiscal stimulus than America’s, which, due to its large tax cuts, places more of the responsibility for increased aggregate demand on the private sector. However, the 31% of the American plan that goes towards school and transportation infrastructure, and the 14% that goes towards continued unemployment benefits, should have positive demand-side effects, and should help increse employment and output in America if the bill is passed.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is meant by the claim that Switzerland’s stimulus package is more of a demand-side policy than the United States’? How will the various types of spending in the Swiss plan contribute to the country’s aggregate demand?
  2. Another difference between the two plans is how they will be paid for. In Switzerland, “the money is to be taken from an expected 2011 budget surplus,” while the US budget for 2012 is expected to have a deficit of around 10% of the country’s GDP. How does the budget situation in the two country’s impact the ability to use fiscal expansionary fiscal policy to promote the macroeconomic objective of full employment?
  3. Which is more likely to have a direct expansionary effect on aggregate demand, tax cuts of a certain size or government spending of the same size? Explain your answer.

51 responses so far

Sep 13 2011

Sample IB Economics Internal Assessment Commentary – Understanding the ECB’s bond-purchasing program

Once again, my IB Economics students are working on yet another Internal Assessment Commentary, this time on syllabus section 3, Macroeconomics. Since they found my sample Microeconomics commentary so helpful, I thought I’d punch out a quick sample of a macro commentary for them and for anyone else who is working on their IB Economcis Internal Assessment.

The commentary below (not including the selection from the article) is 749 words in length. This does NOT include words in the graphs, so let’s not have that debate in the comment section. The new IB economics internal assessment model (first examinations 2013) will not count words on graphs, so this sample commentary is perfectly suited for the new assessment model. If you’re a 2012 student, you would be wise to count words in graphs as part of your word count.

If you like what you see, or have any quesitons, please leave your comments below the post.

Article highlights:

An Impeccable Disaster – NYTimes.com

Paul Krugman clearly explains the problems faced by two or Europe’s largest economies today:

So why is Spain — along with Italy, which has higher debt but smaller deficits — in so much trouble? The answer is that these countries are facing something very much like a bank run, except that the run is on their governments rather than, or more accurately as well as, their financial institutions.

Here’s how such a run works: Investors, for whatever reason, fear that a country will default on its debt. This makes them unwilling to buy the country’s bonds, or at least not unless offered a very high interest rate. And the fact that the country must roll its debt over at high interest rates worsens its fiscal prospects, making default more likely, so that the crisis of confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And as it does, it becomes a banking crisis as well, since a country’s banks are normally heavily invested in government debt.

Now, a country with its own currency, like Britain, can short-circuit this process: if necessary, the Bank of England can step in to buy government debt with newly created money. This might lead to inflation (although even that is doubtful when the economy is depressed), but inflation poses a much smaller threat to investors than outright default. Spain and Italy, however, have adopted the euro and no longer have their own currencies. As a result, the threat of a self-fulfilling crisis is very real — and interest rates on Spanish and Italian debt are more than twice the rate on British debt.

Commentary:

The European Central Bank (ECB) is engaging in a new form of monetary policy in which it buys government bonds directly from the Spanish and Italian governments. Essentially, the goal is to bring down the interest rates on Italian and Spanish government bonds, which should reassure private investors that Italy and Spain will be able to pay them back and thus reduce the upward pressure on interest rates in the Eurozone, a situation which threatens to reverse the already sluggish recovery from the recessions of 2008 and 2009.

Monetary policy refers to a central bank’s manipulation of the money supply and interest rates, aimed at either increasing interest rates (contractionary monetary policy) or reducing interest rates (expansionary monetary policy). The ECB is currently buying government bonds from European governments, effectively increasing the supply of money in Europe with the hope that more government and private sector spending will move the Eurozone economy closer to its full employment level of output, at which workers, land and capital resources are fully employed towards the production of goods and services.

If successful, the ECB’s “quantitative easing”, as the new type of monetary policy is known, should bring down interest rates on government bonds and thereby reallocate loanable funds towards Italy and Spain’s public and private sectors.  The increase in supply of loanable funds should bring down the private interest rates available to borrows (businesses and households), making private investment more attractive.

The ECB’s bond purchases make it cheaper for Italy and Spain to borrow, lowering the interest rates on their bonds, restoring confidence among international investors, who may be more willing to save their money in Italy in Spain. The inflow of loanable funds into these economies (seen as an increase in the supply of loanable funds from S1 to S2) should bring down private borrowing costs (the real interest rate), encouraging more firms to invest in capital and more households to finance the consumption of durable goods, increasing aggregate demand and moving the Eurozone economy back towards its full employment level of output, from AD1 to AD2 in the graph on the right.

In certain circumstances, monetary easing like this could be inflationary, but in reality inflation is unlikely to occur given the large output gap in Europe at present (represented above as the distance between Y1 and the dotted line, signifying the full employment level of output). Any increase in aggregate demand will lead to economic growth (an increase in output), but little or no inflation due to the excess capacity of unemployed labor, land and capital resources in the European economy today.

With private sector borrowing costs increasing due to growing uncertainty over their deficits and debts, the Italian and Spanish governments will find expansionary fiscal policies (tax cuts and increased government expenditures) are unrealistic options for achieving the goal of full employment. The ECB, however, as Krugman argues, should continue to play an increasing role in the expansion of credit to cash strapped European governments, with the aim of keeping interest rates low to prevent the crowding-out of private spending that often occurs in the face of large budget deficits. Inflation, always a concern for central bankers, should be a low priority in Europe’s current recessionary environment. Only when consumer and investor confidence is restored, a condition that requires low borrowing costs, will private sector spending resume and the Euro economies can begin creating jobs and increasing their output again.

In the short-term, Italy and Spain should take advantage of the ECB’s bond-buying initiative, and make meaningful, productivity-enhancing investments in infrastructure, education and job training. If their economies are to grow in the future, Eurozone countries must become more competitive with the rapidly expanding economies of Asia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere in the developing world.

In the medium-term, the Eurozone countries must demonstrate a commitment to fiscal restraint and more balanced budgets. Eliminating loopholes that allow businesses and wealthy individuals to avoid paying taxes, for example, is of utmost importance. Also, increasing the retirement age, downsizing some of the more generous social welfare programs and increasing marginal tax rates on the highest income earners would all send the message to investors that these countries are commited to fiscal discipline. Then, in time, their dependence on ECB lending will decline and private lenders will once again be willing to buy Eurozone government bonds at lower interest rates, allowing for continued growth in the private sector.

32 responses so far

Aug 16 2011

Too much debt or not enough demand? A summary of the debate over America’s fiscal future

As yet another school year begins, we once again find ourselves returning to an atmosphere of economic uncertainty, sluggish growth, and heated debate over how to return the economies of the United States and Europe back onto a growth trajectory. In the last couple of weeks alone the US government has barely avoided a default on its national debt, ratings agencies have downgraded US government bonds, global stock markets have tumbled, confidence in the Eurozone has been pummeled over fears of larger than expected deficits in Italy and Greece, and the US dollar has reached historic lows against currencies such as the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen.

What are we to make of all this turmoil? I will not pretend I can offer a clear explanation to all this chaos, but I can offer here a little summary of the big debate over one of the issues above: the debate over the US national debt and what the US should be doing right now to assure future economic and financial stability.

There are basically two sides to this debate, one we will refer to as the “demand-side” and one we will call the “supply-side”. On the demand-side you have economists like Paul Krugman, and in Washington the left wing of the Democratic party, who believe that America’s biggest problem is a lack of aggregate demand.

Supply-siders, on the other hand, are worried more about the US national debt, which currently stands around 98% of US GDP, and the budget deficit, which this year is around $1.5 trillion, or 10% of GDP. Every dollar spent by the US government beyond what it collects in taxes, argue the supply-siders, must be borrowed, and the cost of borrowing is the interest the government (i.e. taxpayers) have to pay to those buying government bonds. The larger the deficit, the larger the debt burden and the more that must be paid in interest on this debt. Furthermore, increased debt leads to greater uncertainty about the future and the expectation that taxes will have to be raised sometime down the road, thus creating an environment in which firms and households will postpone spending, prolonging the period of economic slump.

The demand-siders, however, believe that debt is only a problem if it grows more rapidly than national income, and in the US right now income growth is almost zero, meaning that the growing debt will pose a greater threat over time due to the slow growth in income. Think of it this way, if I owe you $98 and I only earn $100, then that $98 is a BIG DEAL. But if my income increases to $110 and my debt grows to $100, that is not as big a deal. Yes, I owe you more money, but I am also earning more money, so the debt burden has actually decreased.

In order to get US income to grow, say the demand-siders, continued fiscal and monetary stimulus are needed. With the debt deal struck two weeks ago, however, the US government has vowed to slash future spending by $2.4 trillion, effectively doing the opposite of what the demand-siders would like to see happen, pursuing fiscal contraction rather than expansion. As government spending grows less in the future than it otherwise would have, employment will fall and incomes will grow more slowly, or worse, the US will enter a second recession, meaning even lower incomes in the future, causing a the debt burden to grow.

Now let’s consider the supply-side argument. The supply-siders argue that America’s biggest problem is not the lack of demand, rather it is the debt itself. Every borrowed dollar spent by the goverment, say the supply-siders, is a dollar taken out of the private sector’s pocket. As government spending continues to grow faster than tax receipts, the government must borrow more and more from the private sector, and in order to attract lenders, interest on government bonds must be raised. Higher interest paid on government debt leads to a flow of funds into the public sector and away from the private sector, causing borrowing costs to rise for everyone else. In IB and AP Economics, this phenomenon is known as  the crowding-out effect: Public sector borrowing crowds out private sector investment, slowing growth and leading to less overall demand in the economy.

Additionally, argue the supply-siders, the increase in debt required for further stimulus will only lead to the expectation among households and firms of future increases in tax rates, which will be necessary to pay down the higher level of debt sometime in the future. The expectation of future tax hikes will be enough to discourage current consumption and investment, so despite the increase in government spending now, the fall in private sector confidence will mean less investment and consumption, so aggregate demand may not even grow if we do borrow and spend today!

This debate is not a new one. The demand-side / supply-side battle has raged for nearly a century, going back to the Great Depression when the prevailing economic view was that the cause of the global economic crisis was unbalanced budgets and too much foreign competition. In the early 30’s governments around the world cut spending, raised taxes and erected new barriers to trade in order to try and fix their economic woes. The result was a deepening of the depression and a lost decade of economic activity, culminating in a World War that led to a massive increase in demand and a return to full employment. Let’s hope that this time around the same won’t be necessary to end our global economic woes.

Recently, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria had two of the leading voices in this economic debate on his show to share their views on what is needed to bring the US and the world out of its economic slump. Princeton’s Paul Krugman, a proud Keynesian, spoke for the demand-side, while Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff represented the supply-side. Watch the interview below (up to 24:40), read my notes summarizing the two side’s arguments, and answer the questions that follow.

Summary of Krugman’s argument:

  • Despite the downgrade by Standard & Poor’s (a ratings agency) there appears to be strong demand for US government bonds right now, meaning really low borrowing costs (interest rates) for the US government.
  • This means investors are not afraid of what S&P is telling them to be afraid of, and are more than happy to lend money to the US government at low interest rates.
  • Investors are fleeing from equities (stocks in companies), and buying US bonds because US debt is the safest asset out there. The market is saying that the downgrade may lead to more contractionary policies, hurting the real economy. Investors are afraid of contractionary fiscal policy, so are sending a message to Washington that it should spend more now.
  • The really scary thing is the prospect of another Great Depression.
  • Can fiscal stimulus succeed in an environment of large amounts of debt held by the private sector? YES, says Krugman, the government can sustain spending to maintain employment and output, which leads to income growth and makes it easier for the private sector to pay down their debt.
  • With 9% unemployment and historically high levels of long-term unemployment, we should be addressing the employment problem first. We should throw everything we can at increasing employment and incomes.
  • Is there some upper limit to the national debt? Krugman says the deficit and debt are high, but we must consider costs versus benefits: The US can borrow money and repay in constant dollars (inflation adjusted) less than it borrowed. There must be projects the federal government could undertake with at least a constant rate of return that could get workers employed. If the world wants to buy US bonds, let’s borrow now and invest for the future!
  • If we discovered that space aliens were about to attack and we needed a massive military buildup to protect ourselves from invasion, inflation and budget deficits would be a secondary concern to that and the recession would be over in 18 months.
  • We have so many hypothetical risks (inflation, bond market panic, crowding out, etc…) that we are afraid to tackle the actual challenge that is happening (unemployment, deflation, etc..) and we are destroying a lot of lives to protect ourselves from these “phantom threats”.
  • The thing that’s holding us back right now in the US is private sector debt. Yes we won’t have a self-sustaining recovery until private sector debt comes down, at least relative to incomes. Therefore we need policies that make income grow, which will reduce the burden of private debt.
  • The idea that we cannot do anything to grow until private debt comes down on its own is flawed… increase income, decrease debt burden!
  • Things that we have no evidence for that are supposed to be dangerous are not a good reason not to pursue income growth policies.
  • When it comes down to it, there just isn’t enough spending in the economy!

Summary of Rogoff’s argument:

  • The downgrade was well justified, and the reason for the demand for treasuries is that they look good compared to the other options right now.
  • There is a panic going on as investors adjust to lower growth expectations, due to lack of leadership in the US and Europe.
  • This is not a classical recession, rather a “Great Contraction”: Recessions are periodic, but a financial crisis like this is unusual, this is the 2nd Great Contraction since the Depresssion. It’s not output and employment, but credit and housing which are contracting, due to the “debt overhang”.
  • If you look at a contraction, it can take up to 4 or 5 years just to get back where you started.
  • This is not a double dip recession, because we never left the first one.
  • Rogoff thinks continued fiscal stimulus would worsen the debt overhang because it leads to the expectation of future tax increases, thus causing firms and households increased uncertainty and reduces future growth.
  • If we used our credit to help facilitate a plan to bring down the mortgage debt (debt held by the private sector), Rogoff would consider that a better option than spending on employment and output. Fix the debt problem, and spending will resume.
  • Rogoff thinks we should not assume that interest rates of US debt will last indefinitely. Infrastructure spending, if well spent, is great, but he is suspicious whether the government is able to target its spending so efficiently to make borrowing the money worthwhile.
  • Rogoff thinks if government invests in productive projects, stimulus is a good idea, but “digging ditches” will not fix the economy.
  • Until we get the debt levels down, we cannot get back to robust growth.
  • It’s because of the government’s debt that the private sector is worried about where the country’s going. If we increase the debt to finance more stimulus, there will be more uncertainty, higher interest rates, possibly inflation, and prolonged stagnation in output and incomes.
  • When it comes down to it, there is just too much debt in the economy!

Discussion Question:

  1. What is the fundamental difference between the two arguments being debated above? Both agree that the national debt is a problem, but where do the two economists differ on how to deal with the debt?
  2. The issues of “digging ditches and filling them in” comes up in the discussion. What is the context of this metaphor? What are the two economists views on the effectiveness of such projects?
  3. Following the debate, Fareed Zakaria talks about the reaction in China to S&P’s downgrade of US debt. What does he think about the popular demands in China for the government to pull out of the market for US government bonds?
  4. Explain what Zakaria means when he describes the relationship between the US and China as “Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)”.
  5. Should the US government pursue a second stimulus and directly try to stimulate employment and income? Or should it continue down the path to austerity, cutting government programs to try and balance its budget?

20 responses so far

Sep 17 2010

Obama versus the supply-siders – to extend the Bush tax cuts or not? That is the question…

As the United States enters its mid-term election period, one of the major issues being discussed in Washington D.C. is whether or not the “Bush Tax Cuts” of 2001 and 2003 should be extended. In essence, the tax cuts under the previous president lowered America’s marginal tax rates at all income brackets. From the Wikipedia article on the “Bush tax cuts”:

  • a new 10% bracket was created for single filers with taxable income up to $6,000, joint filers up to $12,000, and heads of households up to $10,000.
  • the 15% bracket’s lower threshold was indexed to the new 10% bracket
  • the 28% bracket would be lowered to 25% by 2006.
  • the 31% bracket would be lowered to 28% by 2006
  • the 36% bracket would be lowered to 33% by 2006
  • the 39.6% bracket would be lowered to 35% by 2006

To be clear, the White House and president Obama do not want to repeal all of the tax cuts above, only those enjoyed by those in the highest income bracket. The 35% marginal tax rate only applies to households earning above $250,000 in the United States. This bracket includes less than 2% of American households. So what Obama wants to do is raise the marginal tax rate by 4% on income earned above and beyond $250,000. Only a couple of million Americans will be affected by this tax increase, while more than 98% of American households will experience no increase in income taxes.

The backlash against Obama has been fierce. The main argument against raising taxes on the richest Americans comes from the Republican party, who argue that higher taxes on the rich will decrease the incentive for workers to produce more output and increase productivity to earn higher incomes. In addition, say the Republicans, it is the rich who are the investors, the capitalists, the firm owners in an economy. Increasing income taxes on the rich will decrease their incentive to invest and thus decrease the overall demand for labor in the nation, leading to lower overall levels of employment and national output. This supply-side argument claims that higher taxes may in fact lead to less taxable income, thus lower tax revenues for the government.

The Economist’s Free Exchange Blog wrote a piece last year on supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve, a popular graphic used by the supply-side to argue against increases in taxes.

Laffer Curve

“The basic reasoning behind the so-called “Laffer curve” is plain, uncontroversial, and by no means was discovered by Arthur Laffer. There is nothing to tax if no one produces anything. But taxes affect the return and therefore the motive to supply labour to economic production. An increase in the tax rate can reduce the pool of wealth to tax — the tax base — by reducing the supply of labour. No taxes, no revenue. Also, 100 percent tax rates, no revenue. Somewhere in between — exactly where depends on, among other things, the responsiveness of labour supply to after-tax wages — there will be a point at which an increase in rates delivers a decrease in revenue. If the tax rate is already past that point, a tax cut delivers more revenue.

…labour supply is just one of many ways in which an increase in tax rates may reduce the effective tax base. In addition to working less, individuals may alter their savings and investment patterns, bargain to shift more of their labour compensation to untaxable perks and benefits, move to a different tax jurisdiction, consume more tax-deductible goods, or simply hide income from the tax authorities.”

As Laffer’s model shows, at certain tax rates, a tax cut will lead to an increase in tax revenue. So how can policy makers be sure whether the United States is currently at a point on its Laffer curve that an increase in taxes won’t result in a decrease in tax revenue?

“Supply-siders” who oppose Obama’s plan to repeal the tax cut, and even argue further tax cuts would benefit the US economy, need to look more carefully at where America is on the Laffer curve.

Republican politicians of late have exhibited a dismaying lack of respect for basic science, and it is not much of a surprise that many are also cavalier about fiscal economics. At current tax rates, new cuts will not “pay for themselves” in the short run. Emphasizing this point, however, does not begin to imply that raising tax rates is smart or harmless.

In a separate piece on the Economist’s blog, the relationship between tax rates and long-run economic growth is further analyzed.  The blog presents the main point of the supply-side argument:

Our baseline specification suggests that an exogenous tax increase of one percent of GDP lowers real GDP by roughly three percent.

On the other hand…

…we find that a tax cut of one percent of GDP increases real output by approximately three percent over the next three years.

So do tax cuts “pay for themselves” as some politicians in the United States have argued in opposition to Obama’s desire to let Bush’s tax cuts expire?

Tax cuts don’t exactly “pay for themselves”, but they also don’t diminish revenue after about two years. That is, after about two years, the government receives revenues equal to what it would have received at the higher rate, but taxpayers enjoy a lower burden. It is an important advance to discover that because cuts do lead to an immediate dip in revenue, they often inspire offsetting tax increases that retard the growth effect of the origina cut. Nevertheless, the effect of cuts on output is generally strong enough to bring revenue back to where it would have been otherwise.

So it’s possible that keeping taxes lower may indeed lead to higher growth and more taxable income down the road in the United States. But all the above analysis neglects to take into account one other VERY important consideration that the US government must consider at this point in time. In a year in which several European nations, most notably Greece, have encountered debt crises, the need to generate tax revenues to finance government spending is as important as ever.

Ironically, some of the same people who oppose ending the Bush tax cuts on the rich also oppose deficit financed fiscal stimulus. People like Niall Ferguson argue that continued deficits threaten to “bring down the US bond market” as foreign and domestic investors lose faith in the US government’s ability to pay off its ever growing national debt. These “deficit hawks” argue that the US should take drastic steps to balance its federal budget, much as several European governments have begun to do, to reduce the likelihood that investors will begin demand higher interest rates for investing in government bonds, which in turn could drive up interest rates for the private sector, crowding out private investment and plunging the US economy into another recession.

The tradeoff may come down to this. Higher taxes now, or higher interest rates AND higher taxes  in the future. Raising taxes on the rich now will allow the US to achieve a more balanced budget in the future. This means less government borrowing, less government debt, and lower interest rates on government bonds and in the private sector. It also means that there will be less debt to pay interest on, which makes debt repayment (currently almost 10% of the government’s non-discretionary budget),  less of a burden in the future. A more balanced budget now (achievable if we repeal the tax cuts for the riches Americans) means less debt in the future, lower taxes in the future, and lower interest rates in the future.

I’ve always said that humans are short-run creatures living in a long-run world. I think Americans epitomize this reality. American voters can always be convinced to vote against new taxes, or vote for the guy who promises to lower their taxes. But in this case, over 98% of Americans will not even be affected in the short-run, however in the long-run the majority stands to gain from tax increases on the rich in the form of less debt to be repaid and more private investment as government borrowing and the resulting crowding-out of interest sensitive spending by the private sector is reduced.

By the way, one of the most prominent supply-side economists of the last half century agrees with me on this one. Here’s former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan arguing for a repeal of the Bush tax cuts:

Discussion questions:

  1. Under what circumstances would a tax increase harm not only workers and firms, but reduce government tax revenue as well?
  2. What would a Keynesian say about the wisdom of raising taxes at a time when unemployment is as high as it is in the United States right now?
  3. How does achieving a more balanced budget now assure that Americans will have to pay less in taxes in the future?
  4. Do you believe that asking the riches Americans to pay 4% more in marginal taxes now will lead to more unemployment in America? Why or why not?

32 responses so far

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