Tax cuts twice as effective as government spending in stimulating the economy
Members of congress and the states’ legislatures are convinced that if they spend more, they can slow the recession and maybe even turn the economy around, but recent research by President-elect Obama’s chair woman of the Council of Economic Advisers found that tax cuts are twice as effective as government spending.
N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard and a former adviser to President Bush, writes in the NY Times:
Textbook Keynesian theory says that tax cuts are less potent than spending increases for stimulating an economy. When the government spends a dollar, the dollar is spent. When the government gives a household a dollar back in taxes, the dollar might be saved, which does not add to aggregate demand.
The evidence, however, is hard to square with the theory. A recent study by Christina D. Romer and David H. Romer, then economists at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that a dollar of tax cuts raises the G.D.P. by about $3. According to the Romers, the multiplier for tax cuts is more than twice what Professor Ramey finds for spending increases.
Why this is so remains a puzzle. One can easily conjecture about what the textbook theory leaves out, but it will take more research to sort things out. And whether these results based on historical data apply to our current extraordinary circumstances is open to debate.
Christina Romer, incidentally, has been chosen as the chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the new administration. Perhaps this fact helps explain why, according to recent reports, tax cuts will be a larger piece of the Obama recovery plan than was previously expected.
Economist and blogger Tyler Cowen writes:
The argument for fiscal stimulus is simply that it will stop things from getting worse by preventing further collapses in aggregate demand. That may be true but fiscal stimulus won‚Äôt drive recovery. Recovery requires that zombie banks behave like real banks, that risk premia are properly priced, and that the economy undergoes its sectoral shifts toward whatever will replace construction and finance and debt-driven consumption. Fiscal policy won‚Äôt do much toward these ends and in fact a temporarily successful stimulus might hinder these long-run adjustments.
Cowen recommends an op-ed piece in the Jan. 7 edition of The Wall Street Journal by Hal Varian, professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and chief economist at Google. His key points:
That brings us to government expenditure, which is getting most of the press. The danger with this form of stimulus is twofold: First, it takes too long for the government spending to kick in, and second, spending may easily focus on pork-barrel projects that have little inherent value.
There are worthwhile public infrastructure projects; the trick is to find them and fund them promptly. One possible plan is to set up an independent commission to prioritize public investment projects, and then subject the plan to a single up-or-down vote in Congress.
One further warning about government stimulus: It makes little sense for the federal government to spend more if the states are forced to spend less. A significant part of the increase in federal government spending should be transfers to the states in order to keep basic government services available at the state and local level.
That brings us to private investment, which hasn’t been getting nearly as much attention as it deserves. This is unfortunate, since private investment is what makes possible future increases in production and consumption. Investment tax credits or other subsidies for private-sector investment are not as politically appealing as tax cuts for consumers or increases in government expenditure. But if private investment doesn’t increase, where will the extra consumption come from in the future?
Ultimately, we want to end up with a significantly higher savings rate in the U.S. than we have seen recently. That means some other component of demand must increase to compensate for the reduced consumption. And the most attractive candidate by far is private investment.