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.
Politico asked 8 of us for a prognosis on US growth in the new year. This was my response –
Something important will get better in 2014: Fiscal policy will stop hurting the economy. The results should show up as expansion in such service sectors as health, education and construction.
The biggest impediment to economic expansion over the last three years has been destructive budget policy coming out of the Congress: misguided fiscal drag in the short term (crude cuts in spending, especially under the sequester; the expiration a year ago of Obama’s payroll tax holiday); repeated unnecessary disruptive and uncertainty-maximizing political crises (debt ceilingshowdowns and government shutdown); and little progress on the genuine longer-term fiscal problem, which is the 40-year prognosis for U.S. debt (a result of projected rapid growth in entitlement spending). These fiscal failures have together probably subtracted well over a percentage point from U.S. growth in each of the last three years.
Now that Janet Yellen is to be Chair of the US Federal Reserve Board, attention has turned to the candidate to succeed her as Vice Chair. Stanley Fischer would be the perfect choice. He has an ideal combination of all the desirable qualities, unique in the literal sense that nobody else has them. During his academic career, Fischer was one of the most accomplished scholars of monetary economics. Subsequently he served as Chief Economist of the World Bank, number two at the International Monetary Fund, and most recently Governor of the central bank of Israel. He was a star performer in each of these positions. I thought in 2000 he should have been made Managing Director of the IMF.
This morning’s US employment report shows that July was the 34th consecutive month of job increases. Earlier in the week, the Commerce Department report showed that the 2nd quarter was the 16th consecutive quarter of positive GDP growth. Of course, the growth rates in employment and income have not been anywhere near as strong as we would like, nor as strong as they could be if we had a more intelligent fiscal policy in Washington. But the US economy is doing much better than what most other industrialized countries have been experiencing. Many European countries haven’t even recovered from the Great Recession, with GDPs currently still below their peaks of six years ago.
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:
The BLS this morning reported U.S. job gains of 163,000 in July, which is good news in the eyes of the financial markets. The jobs data had been disappointing over the preceding three spring months. Before that, during the winter months, employment growth was strong.
In terms of perceptions and politics, pundits will say that today’s report is good news for Obama’s re-election prospects, just as they said the spring jobs numbers were bad news for the President. But my interest is in economics and reality, rather than perceptions and politics. From a longer-term perspective, a few important facts have not been adequately discussed.
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.