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.
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:
Every pundit agrees that President Obama did badly in the first debate. But I can’t help wondering whether he (and VP Joe Biden) would have been able to come out swinging as freely as they have in the subsequent debates, if it were not for what happened in Denver. Obama must have been afraid of sounding unpresidential. But because his initial performance was so roundly criticized for passivity, he was licensed after that to argue aggressively: “What you are saying is not true, Governor Romney.” And it helps that he was right, each time. (My morning-after talking-head comments can be viewed:“Re-cap of 1st Presidential Debate,” Oct.4; and “Re-cap” of 2nd Presidential Debate, Oct.17.)
Martin Feldstein and others predicted that the tax-cut component of the 2009 fiscal stimulus package would have substantially less expansionary bang-for-the-buck than the spending component of the package, because much of the tax cut would be saved, as had been the case with the 2008 tax cut. (“Bang for the buck” in this case could be defined as demand stimulus divided by budget cost.) We knew this from Milton Friedman’s permanent income hypothesis, or even from good old Keynesian multiplier theory.
Congress has finally agreed on a $790 billion stimulus package. Is it too small, as many Democrats claim (such as Paul Krugman), or too big, as many Republicans claim (such as the minority party leadership in Congress)?The answer is yes. It is too big and too small.
So Arthur Laffer — still arguing the improbable “supply side” proposition that cutting income tax rates generally raises total tax revenue — is apparently now a special adviser to John McCain. And McCain has taken on a big consignment of the snake oil, to Greg Mankiw’s dismay. The political temptation for a Republican candidate to promise both lower tax rates and higher revenues is irresistible. The policy-makers who cut taxes when Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, respectively, came to power subscribed to this claim. Remarkably, at the same time, the economists who were the chief economic advisers to Reagan and Bush during these tax cuts disavow the proposition that they increase revenue (Murray Weidenbaum, Martin Feldstein, Glenn Hubbard, Mankiw…) . Almost all serious economists – let us say Ph.D. economists – disagree with this proposition, with only a microscopic handful of exceptions like Laffer. Indeed some of the advisers who defend the Reagan and Bush economic policies claim that this formulation of supply side economics is a caricature, and was not the true rationale of the tax cuts. This wishful thinking is directly at odds with quotes from the presidents themselves and their Treasury secretaries and other economic officials, to the effect that tax cuts stimulate income so much as to produce more tax revenue. Laffer is not a straw man. (See my next post.)