Category Archives: Stimulus

Has the Sequester Hurt the Economy?

Several weeks ago, Steve Forbes argued that the federal government spending cuts known as the “sequester” are actually having beneficial effects on the US economy, and not slowing growth as many economists and pundits in the media have claimed. Forbes’s statement attracted critics, and many economists have expressed skepticism about the sequester too. One economist even went so far as to say, “The disjunction between textbook economics and the choices being made in Washington is larger than any I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

So have the sequester cuts hurt the economy? One possible answer comes from a new paper by Scott Sumner of Bentley University. Sumner argues that cuts to government spending don’t have serious deleterious macroeconomic effects when the Federal Reserve is targeting inflation. This is because the Fed ensures that prices stay stable under an inflation targeting regime, which keeps demand stable even in the face of government spending cuts. Similarly, when the Fed stabilizes the price level it also offsets any beneficial effects that fiscal stimulus might have, which helps explain the lackluster results from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the “stimulus”).

Implicit in Sumner’s theory is that expansionary austerity, or the idea that the economy can grow even in the face of large government spending cuts, is indeed possible. Some of my colleagues at the Mercatus Center have described other ways in which expansionary austerity is possible.

Luckily, there are still things Congress can do to improve the economic outlook, even as spending cuts take hold. Lawmakers can enact policies that boost the performance of the real economy. By this I mean policies that increase the amount of real goods and services the economy produces, as opposed to policies that affect demand (i.e. spending).

One example is reforming the regulatory system, which discourages production of all sorts. With over 174,000 pages of federal regulations in place, there must be a few obsolete or duplicative rules that can be eliminated to relieve the burden on businesses and entrepreneurs. Congress could also reform the tax code, with its perverse incentives and countless carve outs for special interests.

Starting new government programs isn’t likely to do much to benefit growth. New projects take too long to implement, politicians waste too much money on silly boondoggles, and monetary policy will likely offset any beneficial effects anyway. If Congress wants to do something to improve growth, it should focus on creating a regulatory and tax environment that encourages investment and entrepreneurial risk taking.

Why now is a good time to worry about the future

There are many smart people who think that deficits are a problem, but not now. Right now, they say, we need growth. And growth, according to standard Keynesian theory, requires higher deficits today. This perspective has three problems.

That’s me at US News. Click here to see why I think the “no need to worry now” view is wrong. And if you agree with me, let your voice be heard and please vote!

Does stimulus displace private economic activity?

According to Keynesian economic theory, many recessions have little or nothing to do with underlying (structural) economic problems. Instead, recessions are the result of a crisis in confidence. People are simply freaked out and therefore not spending. And when they are not spending, others are not earning income and so the economy suffers.

Keynesians argue that the government can cure this crisis in confidence by borrowing (deficit spending) to fund an increase in government purchases. If people are too freaked out to spend, the logic goes, the government can spend for them. And this spending has a multiplier effect, rippling throughout the economy.

You might be wondering how the government is able to get something for nothing. Government has to borrow the resources from the private economy, doesn’t that mean that the government is competing with private borrowers who have their own plans to invest in the economy? Doesn’t that mean that government investment displaces or crowds-out private investment? The Keynesians, being clever economists, have an answer for this. Their answer is that during a recession there are “idle resources.” That is, individuals and businesses are too freaked out to undertake any major investments and so there is money just lying around. The government can borrow it without displacing any private activity.

Most Keynesians (and by this I mean the economists, not most politicians and pundits who subscribe to Keynesian theory) recognize that this is only a short term phenomenon. Obviously, there comes a time when government borrowing will, indeed, displace private economic activity. That’s why Keynesians believe that the multiplier is larger during a recession and its why they counsel that stimulus should be “timely, targeted, and temporary,” as Lawrence Summers famously put it in December 2007.

Leaving aside the question of whether government can effectively spend the money, is it true that the government purchases multiplier is larger during recessions? A new paper by Michael Owyang (St. Louis Fed), Sarah Zubairy (Bank of Canada) and Valerie Ramey (UCSD) examines this question:

A key question that has arisen during recent debates is whether government spending multipliers are larger during times when resources are idle. This paper seeks to shed light on this question by analyzing new quarterly historical data covering multiple large wars and depressions in the U.S. and Canada. Using an extension of Ramey’s (2011) military news series and Jordà’s (2005) method for estimating impulse responses, we find no evidence that multipliers are greater during periods of high unemployment in the U.S. In every case, the estimated multipliers are below unity. We do find some evidence of higher multipliers during periods of slack in Canada, with some multipliers above unity.

Remember, the way the government calculates GDP, $1.00 in government purchases, automatically increases measured GDP. So a multiplier “below unity” (<1) implies that government purchases displace private economic activity, that stimulus shrinks the private economy.

The paper can be found here.

Giving Illinois local governments control over their workers’ pensions

The Chicago Tribune makes a “modest proposal” this week. Discouraged by the inaction of the Illinois General Assembly on state-wide pension reform, the editorial board supports the idea that costs for teacher pensions should be shifted and shared with local governments. Republicans, fearful of property tax hikes, don’t like the notion. But the Tribune makes a good point: the cost shift should be accompanied with the ability of local governments to directly negotiate with their employees minus the influence of Springfield. It’s an interesting idea.

Ultimately, pension reform must proceed according to certain principles that clarify the following:

a) What is the true and full value of the benefit? The market valuation principle.

b) How do you incentivize such a system to properly value, steward, and fund benefits? The principal-agent problem.

c) How do you connect the full employee wage/benefit bill with taxpayers who enjoy the services? The fiscal illusion problem.

Right now, it’s a mess. Government accounting is a still a jumble. (But the real value is always knowable via market valuation.) No entity currently has the incentive to properly value and fund these systems. And in fact, we continue to see risk-taking and the shifting of assets into alternative investments, the issuance of Pension Obligation Bonds, and the deferral of reforms. Politicians have a short-term horizon.

And then there is the problem of “disjointed finance.”

Take the case of New Jersey. Local governments negotiate with their employees over wages. But pension policy is set by the state. New Jersey municipalities get an annual bill to fund their employee pensions based on the state actuary’s calculations. Local officials don’t have any sense of what those obligations look like going forward. The state’s annual funding calculations low-ball what is needed to fund the benefits. Could it be that such opacity leads local governments to offer wage enhancements, or hiring increases, that translate into total compensation packages that they can’t afford?

The Chicago Tribune’s idea only works if Illinois local governments accurately calculate what is needed on an annual basis to fund the pensions they negotiate with their workers and to have a full assessment of the value of compensation packages over time. How is market valuation incentivized? Perhaps Moody’s move to calculate pensions based on a corporate bond yield will have an effect. Or perhaps plans need to be managed by a third-party, as Roman Hardgrave and I suggest in our 2011 paper. 

Tying local costs to local taxpayers is a good idea. Another phenomenon the pension problem has revealed is gradual separation of taxing and spending in American public finance over the course of the past half century. That has produced a growing fiscal illusion in finance – where things seem less expensive than they actually are since the costs are spread over larger groups of taxpayers. Local costs are spread among state taxpayers, and now the worry is that state pension costs and debts will be spread across national taxpayers. At least, it’s been suggested.

In his 2012 budget, Governor Quinn alluded to a federal government guarantee  of Illinois’ pension debt. It’s not a popular idea with Congress at the moment. But it appears to have been part of the political calculations of those who are responsible designing and enforcing the rules that guide Illinois’ budget and determine pension policy.





The Problem with States’ Rights

This week, Eileen Norcross hosted a fiscal federalism symposium, bringing together scholars of various disciplines to discuss some of the challenges that our system of federalism faces today. Part of the discussion centered around Michael Greve’s new book The Upside-Down Constitution.

One of his key points is a reminder of the reason federalists believed that states’ rights are important. We shouldn’t care about states’ rights for the sake of states’ rights — states are merely groups of residents. Rather, we should care about people’s rights, and how these can be better protected in a federalist system than under a centralized government. This distinction sometimes gets lost when people advocate states’ rights rather than states’ enumerated powers. The problem with advocating states’ rights is that this nuance paves the way for states to collude rather than to compete.

A clear example of this collusion happened in 1984 when Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Because setting a drinking age does not fall under the federal government’s enumerated powers, when Congress wanted to change the rules in this area, it had to bargain using tax dollars. States that kept a drinking age in place below 21 would have lost 10-percent of their federal highway funding dollars.

While this may sound like the federal government is coercing the states, it’s key to remember that the goal of federalism is individuals’ rights. With the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, the states and federal government colluded to bring an end to competition in policy. This Act made state policy in this area the same, taking away Americans’ opportunity to choose to live in states with lower drinking ages.

When multiple levels of government pay for a given service, such as roads, many opportunities arise for this type of collusion, leading to the growth of government and the erosion of competition between governments. A competitive federalism means both that governments have incentives to provide the policy environments that their residents want and that people will have greater variety of policy climates to choose from. If the drinking age is an important issue to a family, competitive federalism could provide them with the option of living in a city or state with a higher or lower minimum age.

In the coming year, we hope to pursue research exploring what institutions limit competition within American federalism and what institutions prevent collusion between the federal, state, and local jurisdictions.


Taxing People to Advocate for Taxing People

Back in April I blogged on a CDC program that seemed to be using taxpayer dollars to fund lobbying for more taxes. In his column this week, George Will picks up on the same program and offers a few more details. Here is a snippet:

In Cook County, Ill., according to an official report, recipients using some of a $16 million CDC grant “educated policymakers on link between SSBs [sugar-sweetened beverages] and obesity, economic impact of an SSB tax, and importance of investing revenue into prevention.”

Along the way, Will also highlights some excellent work coauthored by my colleague Sherzod Abdukadirov. Leaving legality aside, Will asks, “is such “nutrition activism” effective?”

Not according to Michael L. Marlow, economics professor at California Polytechnic State University, and Sherzod Abdukadirov of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Writing in Regulation (“Can Behavioral Economics Combat Obesity?”), a quarterly publication of the libertarian Cato Institute, they powerfully question the assumptions underlying paternalistic policies such as using taxes to nudge individuals to make consumption choices that serve their real but unrecognized interests — e.g., drinking fewer SSBs.


Does Stimulus Work?

Dylan Matthews has a fascinating post over at the Washington Post Wonkbook. He surveys 15 studies of fiscal stimulus and concludes that 13 of them found a positive effect. Let me begin, as Pete Boettke does, by congratulating Mr. Matthews on his approach. He is reasoned, restrained, and apparently interested in looking at the facts. That is not so common in blog posts about stimulus.

Pete wonders how critics of fiscal stimulus might respond to this. Here is my shot.

I have three broad concerns:

  1. I believe that Matthews, like many stimulus advocates, continues to overstate the degree of unanimity among economists on the efficacy and wisdom of fiscal stimulus.
  2. Irrespective of the macroeconomics of stimulus, the public choice of stimulus implementation looks quite bad. Political actors do not behave as Keynesian models suppose they do. So governments do not implement stimulus as Keynesians say they should. And when stimulus is incorrectly applied, it is worse than ineffective. It is counterproductive.
  3. Matthews’s post ignores the short run / long run tradeoff. Not even the most strident Keynesians believe that permanent stimulus is the path to prosperity. At some point governments have to raise taxes to pay off the debt they have accumulated. That is costly and even if one accepts the possibility of short-term gain, it is irresponsible to ignore the certainty of future costs.

I’ll take each of these points in turn.

Stimulus Advocates Overstate the Degree of Unanimity Among Economists:

In introducing the 15 studies Matthews notes that the Romney campaign “left out” a few studies. I’d note that he, too, left a few out. Among peer-reviewed studies that suggest stimulus mostly crowds-out private sector economic activity, I’d include:

In fairness, I’d also include some additional studies which tend to find stimulus stimulates private sector economic activity:

Taken together, this does not look like consensus, does it?

Things get even murkier when one digs into the weeds. For example, some of the “big multiplier” studies only find big multipliers in certain circumstances. And there is reason to believe that these circumstances didn’t apply during the recession and are even less likely to apply now that we are in a weak recovery. To wit:

  • Multipliers are smaller as stimulus gets larger and we have already undergone massive amounts of discretionary and automatic stimulus.
  • Multipliers are smaller in economies that are open to trade.
  • Multipliers are smaller in economies with flexible exchange rates.
  • Multipliers are smaller in economies that are burdened by high levels of government debt.
  • Multipliers may be smaller in a balance sheet recession.

I think the most-recent Nobel Laureate, Thomas Sargent, was right to complain that “President Obama should have been told that there are respectable reasons for doubting that fiscal stimulus packages promote prosperity, and that there are serious economic researchers who remain unconvinced.”

But even this understates the problem. That’s because…

Stimulus Advocates Largely Ignore the Public Choice Problems with Implementing Stimulus:

In the words of stimulus advocate Lawrence Summers, “Fiscal stimulus is critical but could be counterproductive if it is not timely, targeted and temporary.” In my view, the biggest problem with stimulus is that it is very difficult for policy makers to simultaneously satisfy all three criteria.

Untimely: As the President acknowledges, it is very difficult to make stimulus timely, especially when one is dealing with infrastructure projects that involve planning, bidding, contracting, construction, and evaluation. This is why, as late as June 2011, “$45 billion in Department of Transportation infrastructure money had been appropriated, but only 62 percent ($28 billion) had actually been spent.”

Off-Target: It is also very hard to make stimulus targeted. For example, Keynesian theory tells us that to be effective, the money that went to the states needed to have been spent. Instead, 98 percent of it went to decreased borrowing, not increased spending. Worse, of those new hires that were made, many had been previously employed.

Not Temporary: As Paul Krugman has often stressed, stimulus should be temporary to be effective. But as the authors of one of the “large multiplier” studies put it, “it is much easier to start new government programs than to end them.” That’s why, historically, 95 percent of stimulus surges are still there two years after they are begun. It may also explain why the U.S. has spent 90 percent of the last 40 years in a deficit, despite the fact that Keynesian theory would have called for a surplus during most of that time (again, policy makers just don’t behave as Keynesians hope they would).

It’s also why Lord Keynes himself was a skeptic of big stimulus projects near the end of his life, writing:

Organized public works…may be the right cure for a chronic tendency to a deficiency of effective demand. But they are not capable of sufficiently rapid organization (and above all cannot be reversed or undone at a later date), to be the most serviceable instrument for the prevention of the trade cycle.

Stimulus Advocates Often Brush Past Long Run / Short Run Distinctions:

I won’t belabor this point since this is already probably my longest post on record. Stimulus is not a permanent path to prosperity. If all goes perfectly well, it can get a nation out of a pinch. But it has long run costs. Stimulus leads to future taxes and/or future debt and we know that both excessive taxation and debt are economically harmful. Stimulus also has a tendency to ratchet-up spending and we know that, excessive government spending is harmful in the long run. Finally, stimulus has a tendency to undermine economic freedom and we know that a lack of economic freedom is harmful in the long run.

In sum, if we have too much stimulus punch today, the economy will get a major headache tomorrow. Though most academic studies acknowledge this, too few policy makers and pundits seem to recognize it.


Tax Holidays in the Dog Days of August

In what has become a common practice in about a dozen and a half states, August is the month for the sales tax holiday. Whether the goal is to encourage consumer spending or ostensibly offer tax relief to families, the three-day holiday waives sales tax on certain purchases – typically school supplies and clothing. Here’s a chart listing the states and the once-a-year exemptions they offer.

What exactly do sales tax holidays accomplish? Some claims:

  • They save consumers money.
  • They increase consumer spending on both tax-free and taxed items. On net, the result is more revenue in what the National Retail Federation calls a “win/win/win” for consumers, retailers and governments.
  • A weekend tax break keeps spending in the local economy. According to Bloomberg BNA Ohio and Michigan first experimented with a tax holiday on cars in 1980. New York picked up the weekend tax holiday in 1997 to entice borough residents to keep their clothes shopping dollars in NYC rather than cross the border to New Jersey’s malls.
  • It is a way for politicians to make good on tax relief without making permanent changes to the code.
The Tax Foundation claims that tax holidays only shift consumer spending and any savings in tax may be offset by higher retail prices. In addition, the “gimmick-y” exemption leads to arbitrary decisions (e.g. backpacks are exempt but briefcases are not – see Virginia). Basically, the one-time break is a way for politicians to crow about tax relief while avoiding more substantive reforms to the code such as broadening the base and lowering the rate of tax.
A 2009 econometric study, The Fiscal Impact of Sales Tax Holidays, by Adam Cole of the University of Michigan finds that sales tax holidays induce “timing behavior” in consumers. There is a reduction in sales and use tax collections by 4.18 percent in the month of the tax holiday. Half of this reduction is attributed to consumers timing their purchases to coincide with the tax-free weekend. Though there is no evidence that this leads to a large substitution of purchases during the rest of the calendar year.
Cole raises two interesting issues for researchers to consider. Do tax holidays produce cross-jurisidictional shopping effects? Secondly, because of their short duration, do tax holidays allow retailers to evade taxes by attributing earlier sales to the holiday weekend?

Marwell and McGranahan (2010) provide another set of questions to consider for those who over-sell the benefits of back-to-school bargains for family budgets. In their working paper, “The Effect of Sales Tax Holidays on Household Consumption Patterns“, the authors ask: Who’s shopping and what are they buying? Their preliminary findings suggest it is primarily upper income households and they are mainly purchasing clothes.

On a purely anecdotal note, I calculate that if our family went shopping during Virginia’s August 3-5 tax holiday we would have saved about $9.00 on backpacks and school shoes. To avoid the back-t0-school crowds we purchased those items at Tysons Corner the weekend before. If that’s the premium for efficient mall shopping, we paid it gladly.


The Ravitch Volker report: State Budget Crisis is Real

The recession of 2008 pulled the mask off of state budget pathologies that had been identified as institutional weaknesses in the decades leading to the crisis.

The “new normal” for state and local governments does not look like the booming 1980s and 1990s but in fact is riddled with many fiscal challenges.  Revenues aren’t what they were before 2008 though they are expected to reach pre-recession levels in FY 2013. The Medicaid and employee benefits bill is rising. The stimulus pushed forward budgetary reforms. These are some of the findings of the Ravitch-Volker Report, an effort of the State Budget Crisis Task Force which assembled in 2010-2012 to diagnose the major problems facing six states: California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Virginia.

Much of the analysis is non-controversial: Medicaid is eating up budgets, as are pensions costs and health care benefits.

Medicaid, currently at 24 percent of state spending, will continue to increase as enrollment, medical inflation and the increasing caseloads that come with higher unemployment increase costs. This is not a surprise. What is new is that the federal government is making it harder for cost-saving measure to be enacted, and “entrenched provider groups in each state resist reductions in Medicaid provider rates….”  I do not believe this is the intention of the authors of the report but the diagnosis of Medicaid’s future highlights the dysfunctional aspects of this federal-state pact which has led to the creation of special interests that benefit from inflating costs.

On the pension front the Ravitch-Volker report points to the the role discount rates have played in the pension funding problems facing the state and local governments, in particular in New Jersey. And they also note the reliance on budgetary gimmicks that may even result in a kind of budgetary “cynicism.” A point I have made in the past.

But the report also makes a few assumptions about the interplay of federal, state and local spending that I think could benefit from an expanded debate. The authors warn that cuts in federal discretionary spending will doom subsidiary governments. On the surface, that’s true. Cuts in aid mean less money in state coffers for education, transportation and other areas. But the larger question is what are the fiscal effects of grants-in-aid between governments? There is the public choice literature to consider on the role of fiscal illusion in finances. And further, does the current model of delivering these services actually work as intended?

Their recommendations are largely sound. Many of them have been made before: more transparent accounting, a tightening of rainy day fund rules (see our recent paper on Illinois), broad-based tax systems should replace narrow ones, the re-establishment of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR). Abolished in 1995 ACIR was concerned with evaluating the fiscal impact of federal policies in the states. Further the commission recommends the federal government work with the states to help control Medicaid costs, and the re-evaluation by states of their own local needs including municipal finances and infrastructure spending.

The report is timely, contains good information and brings many challenges to the fore. But this discussion can also benefit from a larger debate over the current federal-state-local spending model which dates largely to the middle of last century. This debate is not merely about how books are balanced but how citizens are governed in our federalist system. The Ravitch-Volker report is sober but cautious in this regard. The report sketches out the fiscal picture of the U.S. in broad strokes and offers general principles for states to follow and it is sure to create discussion among policymakers in the coming months.