The Sham of “Fiscal Responsibility” in Public Policy

The budgets of a government are different in nature than the budgets of a family, yet it seems that few media and political elites seem to understand this. A sovereign government can for example create more currency (which doesn’t necessarily lead to more inflation, per the quantity theory of money) for various initiatives, an option legally unavailable for personal families.

It’s official: New York Times columnist David Leonhardt pronounced the Democrats as the party of fiscal responsibility. In contrast to three of the last four Republican presidents who raised deficits with big tax cuts for the rich and increases in military spending, the last Democratic presidents sharply reduced the budget deficit during their term in office.

Leonhardt obviously intends the designation to be praise for the party, but it really shows his confusion about budget deficits and their impact on the economy. Unfortunately, this confusion is widely shared.

Contrary to what Leonhardt seems to think, the economy doesn’t get a gold star for a balanced budget or lower deficit. In fact, lower deficits can inflict devastating damage on the economy by reducing demand, leading to millions of workers needlessly unemployed.

This has a permanent cost as many of the long-term unemployed may lose their attachment to the labor market and never work again. Their children will also pay a big price as children of unemployed parent(s) tend to fare worse in life by a wide variety of measures, especially when unemployment is associated with family breakup, frequent moves and possible evictions. Also, lower levels of output will mean less investment, making the economy less productive in the future.

We actually have some basis for estimating the cost of long periods where the economy suffers from insufficient demand. If we compare the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) projections for potential GDP in 2018 made before the Great Recession, with their current projections, the gap is more than $2 trillion, or 10 percent of GDP.

That loss comes to more than $15,000 a year for every household in the country. In other words, the CBO’s projections imply that if we had managed to sustain high levels of demand in 2008 and subsequent years, rather than falling into a severe recession with a weak recovery, the annual income of the average household would be $15,000 a year higher.

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Balanced Budget Amendment Would be a Disaster

If you want to see how horribly austerity works for the general population, look what’s happened to Europe. Deficits create demand somewhere in the economy, and removing the ability to run them would be horrifying, especially in recessions.

The House is set to take up a balanced budget amendment this week, which would limit federal spending in each fiscal year to federal receipts in that year. Putting aside for a moment the chutzpah of House Republicans trying to pass a balanced budget amendment (BBA) just a few months removed from their passage of a $1.5 trillion tax cut that went largely to the richest households and big corporations, the simple fact is that the economic consequences of a balanced budget amendment range from extremely bad to catastrophic. The reason for this is that a BBA would amplify any negative economic shock to the economy and would thereby turn run-of-the-mill recessions into disasters.

When the economy enters a recession, government deficits increase as tax revenues decline and government spending on programs such as unemployment insurance increase. These “automatic stabilizers” are incredibly important as they cushion the blow to the economy from a recession. For example, researchers at Goldman Sachs found that the shock to private sector spending from the bursting of the housing bubble was larger than the shock that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Given this larger initial shock, why didn’t we have another Great Depression, with unemployment rates approaching 20 percent and beyond, in 2009–10? The simple reason is that the mechanical increase in the deficit from tax reductions and increased transfer payments absorbed a lot (not enough, but a lot) of this shock, and automatic stabilizers were either non-existent or a lot smaller in the 1930s. Having these programs in place to absorb recessionary shocks is one of the great economic advances of the past 80 years—and getting rid of them by imposing a BBA makes as much sense as outlawing computers or antibiotics.