My Two Cents

Fiscal stimulus

Chris Farrell Jan 22, 2009

There’s a lot of discussion in the econ blogsphere and editorial pages about the fiscal stimulus “multiplier” effect on the economy and whether tax cuts have a bigger or smaller effect on economic growth. I think Mark Thoma, professor of economics at the University of Oregon, has written a well-reasoned and simple argument that cuts through the whole multiplier debate. He makes a persuasive case why the fiscal stimulus package makes a lot of sense–it’s good policy for both a short-term and long-term reasons. You can read it on his blog here We’ve neglected critical “public goods” for too long.

Tax cuts won’t build schools, or any other public good.

And right now, with so much of our infrastructure in need of attention, we need public goods.

We tried the tax cut approach to stimulating the economy once, we had no choice since Bush and the Republicans would not have passed any other type of stimulus package.

Guess what? It didn’t work very well, and we have little to show for it. Had we, say, rebuilt water systems instead, at the very worst we’d have better water. That’s not so bad in any case.

And it’s been interesting, if that’s the right word, to watch the same people who delayed fiscal policy for months and months and months as they insisted that we try tax cuts first now tell us that it will take too long to put the spending in place. They don’t seem to realized that’s because of their insistence on the use of tax cuts rather than spending. If we had started on these projects a year ago instead of enacting the tax cut package to appease the right, timeliness would not be such an issue – we might already be repairing sewage systems, rebuilding roads, and so on. I’ve even heard some who ought to know better argue that because forecasts say the recession will end soon, we can’t possibly get the spending in place soon enough. That is, they argue that by the time the spending hits the economy, the economy will have already recovered (these are often the same people who reassured us that there was no housing bubble, and there was not worry anyway because the recession, if it hit at all, would be very mild and easily absorbed by our dynamic, flexible economy). Never mind that forecasts beyond around six months ahead are not much better than a coin flip, and they know it, some forecast somewhere says that the recession will end before spending is in place, and that’s enough for them to take the argument public. What if the forecast is wrong?

It’s not completely clear to me that the fact that the recession might end soon undercuts the case for government spending anyway. If the money is spent on large, socially beneficial projects – and lots of infrastructure comes under this heading – then so what if the economy recovers? These are things we very much need, and that won’t change just because the economy is doing better. There will be net benefits no matter the state of the economy, but the net benefits will be higher if we pursue these projects when the costs are low. If we are lucky, and the economy recovers very fast, much faster than expected, then there will still be benefits, they just won’t be as large.

We need to do these things, and right now, with so many idle resources in the economy, the opportunity cost of employing resources is low. For this reason, this is an opportune time to meet the challenges that we face in repairing the infrastructure and in meeting other needs that are critical to maintaining robust economic growth, and in maintaining our health and welfare.

The tax cuts are better than spending proponents generally ignore public goods when they argue that the private sector is always better at spending money, but it seems to me that leaves out an important part of the argument.

If the argument that the private sector is more efficient than government always prevailed, we wouldn’t have any public goods at all, and that’s not an economy I’d want to live in. Obviously, there are times when spending on public goods is justified economically, and I’d argue strongly that this is one of those times, i.e. that there are lots of places the government can spend money that have large social returns. Why would we want to wait until the opportunity cost is very high to reap these returns instead of pursuing these projects now when the cost is lower? If we are going to have to make these expenditures anyway, it doesn’t make any sense to wait.

And one last question. The tax cuts are best crowd argues that government makes poor spending decisions, and this is one of their key objections to spending measures. But doesn’t government make bad tax decisions too? The tax cut advocates like to promote some tax they’ve designed that has wonderful properties on paper, and sounds great on the editorial page, but it’s just as easy to do that with fiscal policy. If you don’t have to confront the reality of the legislative process, and you are free to argue from a theoretical perspective instead, not a dollar will get wasted. But as we saw during the first fiscal stimulus attempt, the one where the “it has to be tax cuts or nothing” types prevailed, the tax cuts that were actually enacted were far from optimal, and there was quite a bit of disappointment in the actual tax cut package that was put into place. And perhaps because of that, the tax cuts had less effect than hoped. I know that the tax cut advocates say that this time government needs to do it right, and they have lots of advice about what “right” is, but, really, given the realities in congress, what makes them think this time will be any different?

Tax cuts won’t build schools.

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