Commentators are taking note of the five-year anniversary of the fiscal stimulus that President Obama enacted during his first month in office. Those who don’t like Obama are still asking “if the fiscal stimulus was so great, why didn’t it work?” What is the appropriate response?
Those who think that the spending increases and tax cuts were the right thing to do have given a number of responses, which sound a bit weak to me. The first is that the stimulus wasn’t big enough. The second was that the Great Recession would have been much worse in the absence of the stimulus, perhaps a replay of the Great Depression of the 1930s. (The media are fond of this line of reasoning because it allows them to escape making a judgment. They can just say “nobody knows what would have happened otherwise.”) The third response is that the fiscal stimulus was short-lived, and in fact was reversed by the Congress by 2010.
October 4 is the first Friday of the month, the day when the Bureau of Labor Statistics routinely reports the jobs numbers for the preceding month. Is the havoc created by our current political deadlock over fiscal policy showing up as job losses? We have no way of knowing. On October 1 the BLS closed for business, like many other “non-essential” parts of the government. There will be no more employment numbers until the shutdown ends.
Last week, Wall Street economic analysts responded to the usual surveys as to what they thought the upcoming employment numbers would be. (These surveys are what the media refers to each month when they tell you that employment rose or fell “more than economists expected.”) The median forecast in last week’s Bloomberg survey, for example, was a prediction that the BLS would report that “Payrolls increased by 175,000,” the biggest gain in four months. But there was no word on how many of the respondents recognized that there would in fact probably be no number at all on October 4, because the Labor Department would have been closed by the government shutdown.
“Does Debt Matter?” is the question posed by The International Economy to 20 commentators: “The recent scrutiny of the popularized version of the Rogoff-Reinhart thesis (that growth plummets when debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP) makes clear there are no simple formulas for determining the risks in the level of a nation’s debt. …Can a realistic guide be fashioned for determining whether a nation’s debt has reached a danger zone? Or are countries from here on expected to pursue fiscal reforms only if and when a crisis sets in?”
Several of my colleagues on the Harvard faculty have recently been casualties in the cross-fire between fiscal austerians and stimulators. Economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff have received an unbelievable amount of press attention, ever since they were discovered by three researchers at the University of Massachusetts to have made a spreadsheet error in the first of two papers that examined the statistical relationship between debt and growth. They quickly conceded their mistake.
Then historian Niall Ferguson, also of Harvard, received much flack when — asked to comment on Keynes’ famous phrase “In the long run we are all dead” — he “suggested that Keynes was perhaps indifferent to the long run because he had no children, and that he had no children because he was gay.”
Europe’s fiscal compact went into effect January 1, as a result of its ratification December 21 by the 12th country, Finland, a year after German Chancellor Angela Merkel prodded eurozone leaders into agreement. The compact (technically called the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union) requires member countries to introduce laws limiting their structural government budget deficits to less than ½ % of GDP. A limit on the “structural deficit” means that a country can run a deficit above the limit to the extent — and only to the extent — that the gap is cyclical, i.e., that its economy is operating below potential due to temporary negative shocks. In other words, the target is cyclically adjusted. The budget balance rule must be adopted in each country, preferably in their national constitutions, by the end of 2013.
Needless to say, the US has a long-term debt problem. The problem is long-term both in the sense that it pertains to the next several decades rather than to this year. (Indeed, the deficit/GDP ratio has been falling since 2009, despite the weakness of the economy.) The problem is also long-term in the sense that we have known about it for a long time; it was clear in 1991 and should still have been clear in 2001.
It should be almost as needless-to-say that the approaching debt ceiling bomb is not helpful in solving our fiscal situation, any more so than were previous standoffs: the January 1, 2013, fiscal cliff; before that, the August 2011 debt ceiling standoff, which led Standard and Poor’s to downgrade the credit rating of US debt for the first time in history; and before that, the 1995 shutdown of the government, which largely discredited Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The current debt ceiling bomb is, of course, another attempt to hold the country hostage under threat of blowing us all up. The conflict is usually phrased as a question of ideological polarization, a battle between fiscal conservatives and their opponents. This familiar frame does not seem right to me. There is in fact no correlation or consistency between the practice of federal fiscal discipline and the political rhetoric, either across states or across time.
Politicians who advertise themselves as “fiscal conservatives” sometimes campaign on crowd-pleasing pledges to cut taxes and simultaneously reduce budget deficits. These are difficult promises to deliver on in practice, since the budget deficit equals government spending minus tax revenue.
Aspiring fiscal conservatives may be interested in learning four innovative tricks that are commonly used by American politicians who like to promise what seems impossible. Each of these feats has been perfected over three decades or more. Indeed they first acquired their colorful names in the early years of the Ronald Reagan presidency:
My preceding post bemoaned the tendency for many US politicians to exhibit a procyclicalist pattern: supporting tax cuts and spending increases when the economy is booming, which should be the time to save money for a rainy day, and then re-discovering the evils of budget deficits only in times of recession, thus supporting fiscal contraction at precisely the wrong time. Procyclicalists exacerbate the magnitude of the swings in the business cycle.
This is not just an American problem. A similar unfortunate cycle — large fiscal deficits when the economy is already expanding anyway, followed by fiscal contraction in response to a recession — has also been visible in the United Kingdom and euroland in recent years. Greece and Portugal are the two most infamous examples. But the larger European countries, as well, failed to take advantage of the expansionary period 2003-07 to strengthen their public finances, and instead ran budget deficits in excess of the limits (3% of GDP) that they were supposed to obey under the Stability and Growth Pact. Then, over the last few years, politicians in both the UK and the continent have made their recessions worse by imposing aggressive fiscal austerity at precisely the wrong time.
The world is in the grip of a debate between fiscal austerity and fiscal stimulus. Opponents of austerity worry about contractionary effects on the economy. Opponents of stimulus worry about indebtedness and moral hazard.
Is austerity good or bad? It is as foolish to debate this proposition as it would be to debate whether it is better for a driver to turn left or right. It depends where the car is on the road. Sometimes left is appropriate, sometimes right. When an economy is in a boom, the government should run a surplus; other times, when in recession, it should run a deficit.
Why do so many countries so often wander far off the path of fiscal responsibility? Concern about budget deficits has become a burning political issue in the United States, has helped persuade the United Kingdom to enact stringent cuts despite a weak economy, and is the proximate cause of the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, which has grown to engulf the entire eurozone. Indeed, among industrialized countries, hardly a one is immune from fiscal woes.
Clearly, part of the blame lies with voters who don’t want to hear that budget discipline means cutting programs that matter to them, and with politicians who tell voters only what they want to hear. But another factor has attracted insufficient notice: systematically over-optimistic official forecasts.