24 January 2016

Timing and Composition

Family members are often confused by my simultaneous support for looser fiscal policy in the United States and disdain for Republican tax proposals during this election cycle on the ground that they would result in too much deficit spending. On the surface, my policy preferences seem contradictory; I neither support efforts to rein in the deficit nor the large tax cut proposals of the majority of Republicans. There are two primary reasons for this seemingly strange predilection: timing and composition.

The length of time each policy lasts is crucial to my support. As per the 'New Keynesian consensus,' loose fiscal policy should only be used until monetary policy can be reasonably declared unconstrained by the zero lower bound. This is why deliberate deficit cutting policies should not have been undertaken, and arguably should not be pursued further, until two criteria have been met: the federal funds rate must be above the zero lower bound and there must be little to no risk that the zero lower bound will be made to bind by either a tightening of fiscal policy or some other shock to the economy. At the time of writing this post, only the first criterion is fulfilled -- the Federal Reserve has decided to raise the target fed funds rate, but, since it stands somewhere between 0.25% and 0.5% (the Fed has adopted a target range instead of a strict target), it would be reasonable to suggest that a large negative fiscal shock could be more than the Fed can handle without being thrown back into a liquidity trap (in this sense, the US could still be considered to be in a liquidity trap, even though the zero lower bound no longer binds).

GOP tax cut proposals would undoubtedly achieve the temporary goal of looser fiscal policy, but they would be on a completely wrong timescale. Conventional analysis only suggests loose fiscal policy for the duration of the liquidity trap, and, since the tax cuts are permanent to the extent that they are not repealed by future administrations, they fail miserably in this regard. In other words, fiscal policy would be too loose for too long under large tax cuts -- especially if they are not accompanied by corresponding reductions in government spending. Additionally, spending cuts are arguably more damaging than tax cuts are stimulative in liquidity traps, so a fiscal adjustment fully in line with, e.g., Rand Paul's or Ted Cruz' preferences could completely fail to comply with the recommendations of mainstream economics, which scares me enough in its own right to warrant a revocation of support.

My second criticism of the GOP tax plans is more personal; I think that government spending and taxes in the United States should be higher, not lower. There are certainly arguments to be made that government spending in the United States does nothing to raise aggregate utility and should thus be cut, but I believe, and I think most other economists agree with me, that this is definitely not the case. This is especially true in infrastructure, or more generally government investment -- currently at its lowest level as a percentage of GDP since 1948 -- which sorely needs to be increased. Further, spending on Social Security and Medicare should increase over the next decade or two because of the changing demographics of the country. If we adopt the tax proposals of many if not all of the GOP candidates, spending cuts will have to come from somewhere and, given the Republican obsession with massive military spending, they will probably not be defense cuts. This pretty much leaves entitlements and investment -- both of which would cause significant pain going forward if they were cut significantly.

Ideally, fiscal policy makers would focus in the short term on simply not cutting spending too ferociously and in the long run on figuring out how to raise the revenue required for higher levels of government investment and entitlement spending. The GOP seems prepared to do neither of these and, as such, I am not prepared to endorse them for their fiscal policy.

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