BY MARK THOMA
Here is an op-ed I started, and then abandoned in favor of another topic. I decided to post it because I want to at least raise the possibility of using the balanced budget multiplier as a way of using budget neutral policies to stimulate the economy. As explained below, those policies would work best if we ask the wealthy to finance job creation programs. It's not as powerful as deficit spending, but it's better than nothing at all:
Despite the advice from many economists urging the Fed to do more to help the economy, and despite hopes in the business community that the Fed would follow this advice, Ben Bernanke made it clear in his speech at Jackson Hole last Friday that policy is on hold. He noted they will discuss this at their September meeting, but I am not very hopeful that policy will change at that time. I disagree strongly with the Fed's decision to remain on hold, we need to attack the employment crisis with all the policy tools at our disposal, but the Fed disagrees.
With the Fed unlikely to ease policy any further, what about fiscal policy? Would another round of fiscal policy be helpful, or would it do more harm than good? There are very clear political problems involved with fiscal policy, more on that below, but what about the economics? Would further stimulus be beneficial?
The economics does provide a further case for intervention. As I’ve explained previously on these pages, not all recessions are alike. They have different causes, e.g. recessions can be caused by oil price shocks, productivity shocks, monetary policy shocks, and bursting asset price bubbles. When a bubble bursts wiping out household retirement, education, and other savings households rely upon for security it is known as a balance sheet recession. Recovering losses from this type of recession, i.e. rebuilding the balance sheet, are notoriously difficult and “lost decades” such as Japan experienced in the 1990s are not uncommon.
What to do? The slow recovery can be attributed in large part to the fact that households must reduce consumption and increase savings in order to recover their losses, and so long as consumption remains low the economy will continue have problems. In ordinary, mild recessions monetary policy is the best approach, and it can generally handle the problem on its own. But in a deep balance sheet recession monetary policy alone isn’t enough. In large recessions fiscal policy that targets the problem – balance sheets in this case – has an important role to play.
How can fiscal policy be used to attack the type of recession we are having? Mortgage relief, and debt relief more generally, is first on the list. Debt relief improves household balance sheets, and hence directly targets the problem. There were a few half-hearted attempts to do something like this, but nothing like what is needed.
Thus, fiscal policy directed at two goals, balance sheet repair and job creation, would do a lot to ease current conditions and to allow us to exit the recession sooner.
But is there any way at all to get more fiscal policy through Congress? Probably not. But the problem is important enough, and the crack in the door is open just enough (and opening more with each new piece of information indicating a sluggish recovery at best), that it’s worth it to at least try.
We do have a long run debt problem to bring under control, but in the short-run we need more, not less deficit spending. But the political atmosphere will not allow any further increase in government debt. If anything, it will move in the other (and wrong) direction. However, there is something called the balanced budget multiplier that could still be useful and would perhaps — emphasis on perhaps — find political support.
How could, say, an increase in government spending of $100 on new goods and services financed by a $100 increase in taxes stimulate the economy? The $100 purchase by the government increases aggregate demand by the same amount. But the increase in taxes does not fully offset the increase in demand because the tax bill will be paid, in part, from savings. For example, suppose that the household pays its tax bill by reducing consumption by $80 and reducing saving by $20. Then the net impact on aggregate demand will be the $100 in government spending minus the $80 reduction in consumption for a net change of $20. That’s not as large as the $100 we could get from deficit spending, i.e. increasing government expenditures without increasing taxes, but it’s better than not doing anything at all (and this is just the impact effect, the $20 will create more than $20 in spending due to standard multiplier effects).
This also tells us who should be asked to pay these taxes if we want to have the maximum impact on the economy. If more of the bill is paid from saving, e.g. $30 instead of $20, then the net impact will be bigger. Thus taxes that are levied on those most likely to pay out of saving, the wealthy, will have the largest impact on aggregate demand (e.g. if it is paid fully out of saving, there is no offset at all). I don't have any illusions about the difficulty of getting a tax increase on the wealthy through Congress, but it could be done — perhaps — by closing loopholes, credits, deductions, exclusions, etc. which seems to have a bit more support.
On the other side, what should the government spend its money on? The usual answer is infrastructure since it stimulates the economy in the short-run and also helps with long-run growth. But one thing we learned from the previous round of infrastructure spending is that infrastructure construction has a relatively low labor intensity per dollar spent. But long-run growth is not the only goal of this spending, job creation is just as important. In addition emphasizing employment keeps people connected to the labor market, and this can also have positive effects on long-run growth (by, for example, keeping people from permanently dropping out of the labor force). The first round of spending emphasized long-run growth, but I would like to see this round concentrate spending in areas where it is likely to have the most effect on employment.
The spending programs should end once the economy improves, e.g., I would link the spending to the unemployment rate and end it once unemployment falls below some threshold (and include automatic, distasteful cuts in the legislation if the two sides do not reverse the spending to help to ensure it is temporary -- that will help to mollify the concerns of those who worry about using stabilization policy to increase the size of government). But the tax increases/closed loopholes, credits, deductions, etc. on the wealthy should continue so that in the long-run the tax increase can help with deficit reduction.
I don’t have any doubt about the need for such initiatives, nor do I have any illusions about politicians endorsing this or any other stimulus plan – raising taxes on the wealthy is most likely a non-starter. But taxes on the wealthy are going to go up, if not sooner than later. Our long-run budget picture demands it and recent polls show that the public is behind this. So why not do it now when it can help with the employment, household debt, infrastructure problems immediately and improve our long-run debt outlook instead of waiting until we can only help with a subset of those problems? The answer, of course, is that helping households overcome debt problems and helping the unemployed would cause taxes on the wealthy to go up, and that is very unlikely to happen. And the dismal chances of providing help to middle and lower class households struggling with debt problems and high unemployment by asking the wealthy to pay more says a lot about who has power in Washington.
[Update: I probably should have noted that both Robert Shiller and Joe Stiglitz, among others, have suggested the same thing.]
Mark Thoma is an economics professor at the University of Oregon and the author of the blog Economist's View.