Thanks to Mark Thoma
for picking up my last post
. I think I could fill my blog for a month with daily posts responding to Mark’s comment, the comments on my blog, and the comments on Mark's blog. For today, anyhow, I’m just going to address one issue. As Mark notes:
…there are two separate issues here, one is stabilization policy and for that part of fiscal policy I have no problem with requiring that the budget be balanced over the business cycle. The other is investments in, say, human and physical capital…
I’ll certainly agree there are (at least) two issues, and maybe in the future I will comment on how the two interact. For now, I want to address the first issue.
From a pure stabilization point of view, I don’t think that balancing the budget over the business cycle is a good idea, in part for reasons already discussed in my previous post, and in part because I’m not even sure I believe in the whole concept of a “business cycle” per se
. Business, and the macroeconomy, unquestionably has its ups and downs, but so does, for example, the stock market. We don’t normally speak of a “stock market cycle” (although some people do). There are recessions, and there are depressions, and there are inflationary booms, and there are non-inflationary booms. Recessions are limited by definition, but depressions can persist for many years. Inflationary booms are self-limiting, but the jury is still out on non-inflationary booms. Even if recessions and inflationary booms were the only phenomena, they can’t necessarily be expected to alternate: you could have 3 recessions in a row, separated by incomplete recoveries, and followed by 2 inflationary booms in a row, separated by a “soft landing.” The word “cycle” suggests a symmetry which is not, in general, present.
On the purely semantic point, I can accept the use of the word “cycle” for want of a better term, but the argument to balance the budget over the business cycle seems to rest on a substantive presumption of symmetry. It presumes that the stimulus needed during times of economic weakness will be exactly compensated by the excess revenue available during times of economic strength.
You might argue this symmetry must apply in the very long run, because the government has to satisfy an intertemporal budget constraint. Even that point is debatable: in the very long run, the government’s budget constraint applies only if the interest rate is at least as high as the growth rate. Otherwise, if you look out far enough into the future, there will always eventually be enough revenue to pay off any debt the government might accumulate over any finite stretch of time. Some have argued that, empirically, the government typically has faced an interest rate that is less than the growth rate.
But that’s not really my point. I’m cognizant of Keynes’ famous warning about excessive concern with the long run. And a single “business cycle” isn’t much of a long run, anyhow. Conventional business cycle theory might argue for a certain symmetry based on the characteristics of the Phllips curve, under the assumptions that the curve is linear in the short run and vertical in the long run. Under those assumptions, deviations from the NAIRU
in one direction are always compensated – let’s say in the medium run – by deviations in the other direction. For the sake of argument I’m willing to accept the vertical long-run Phillips curve, but the linear short-run curve seems to me to be more an econometric convenience than a credible assertion about reality. Back when people believed in static Phillips curves, they used to plot the curves. I’ve seen reproductions of such plots, I can’t remember ever seeing one that looked like a straight line.
Even if (counterfactually) the business cycle is symmetric, it isn’t well-defined, at least not until after the fact. The NBER can’t make the government retroactively balance the budget once it decides what the business cycle dates were. Even if our goal is to balance the budget over one “cycle,” there is no obvious policy that would result in such a balance. The closest we could come is perhaps to require the budget be balanced over, say, 5 calendar years, but that strikes me as a very bad policy: during the first 3 years, we won’t know in advance whether the next 2 are going to be stronger or weaker economically, so we won’t know whether to run a deficit or a surplus. Knowing Congress, I expect the tendency would be to declare the first 3 years a recession and run deficits, which would then require surpluses during the last 2 years and result in an actual recession.
So here’s my alternative proposal: pick a set of interest rates and make fiscal rules contingent on those interest rates. For example, when the 10-year Treasury yield rises above 4%, a deficit ceiling goes into effect; when it rises above 5%, pay-go rules go into effect; when it rises above 6%, a surtax and specific spending restraints go into effect; and so on. We can quibble about the details, and in any case they can be adjusted later if necessary. But this policy makes a lot more sense to me than some attempt to handicap a vague business cycle (or for that matter a vague “trend” in the debt-to-GDP ratio, which can also be hard to identify without benefit of hindsight).
Labels: budget deficit, economics, government spending, interest rates, macroeconomics, NAIRU, Phillips curve, public finance, taxes