Thursday, January 17, 2008

Where Should The Stimulus Go?

There is a lot of talk today about a stimulus package from the Federal Government to help counter the slowing economy. A lot of generalities were discussed during Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's testimony before The House Budget Committee. You can read his prepared statement here.

Some pundits and politicians are arguing the stimulus should be focused on business with ideas such as accelerated depreciation. The thinking behind this is that it will stimulate businesses to acquire capital goods and the only cost to the government is the time value of money because businesses get the tax benefit now instead of over time. I haven't heard anyone yet limit such a plan to goods manufactured in the US, and without that this idea could be very watered down. That's also an issue with any of the other plans, however, but using a depreciation incentive to spur purchases of capital goods could be targeted toward domestic manufacturers as other plans may not be. Of course there are likely trade partner issues with any such limitations.

On the other end of the spectrum is giving to the poor. Expand the food stamp program and other help to the poor. The argument here is that these people will immediately spend the money and it will have the most immediate stimulative impact on the economy. If the stimulus is limited to tax breaks these people will see no help at all because they are not taxpayers to begin with.

Then there is tax relief for the investor class, otherwise known as the good old trickle down theory. According to this thinking, if we cut taxes on investing businesses will have access to capital and will invest thereby putting people to work and lifting all boats. Of course, if business in general is already sitting on large piles of capital then this plan would have no impact other than to add to the coffers of the wealthy.

Also under consideration is a tax break for the middle-class. The thinking here is that many people will spend it because times are tough, and so the stimulative impact will be relatively quick. An argument against this is that so many middle-class families are in so much debt that a large portion of such stimulus will go to paying down credit cards rather than new expenditures. This would help in the long run as consumers in too much debt can't consume, but there would be a delay in the impact. This plan could be attractive to the banks and credit card companies, so I think it has a pretty good chance of being at least part of any plan.

There are those who argue that this is the time to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. This just goes to show how extreme the position of this wing of the Republican party is. This would have zero impact until 2011, and is simply not relevant to the discussion of a stimulus plan. You can, however, count on those regular foot soldiers of the neocons who have gone a long way to destroying the fiscal health of our country to come out and tell us why this would be a good idea now.

As far as the Fed Chairman is concerned, he was non-committal on any particular stimulus package although he clearly warned that any plan that increased the structural fiscal deficit must be avoided, and government must address that issue sooner rather than later. He avoids recommending the solution to Congress, as he should, because he is not political (not supposed to be anyway) and this is clearly a political issue. What he does say is that the long term problem is simple arithmetic. What comes in must equal what goes out or at some point we have a crisis (and that point is within the next decade or two). In crafting a stimulus package:

As I have discussed on other occasions, the nation faces daunting long-run budget challenges associated with an aging population, rising health-care costs, and other factors. A fiscal program that increased the structural budget deficit would only make confronting those challenges more difficult.

I have a suggestion for Congress and the President. Since the years of following a policy of tax-cuts, borrow and spend have left us in the painfully foreseeable position of a pending fiscal crises, perhaps it is time to change course. As a place to begin, I suggest the research of Romer and Romer oft-cited by supporters of tax cut policies as evidence that their way is the best. What we do not hear about is the conclusion reached in that very same research report that a tax increase to repay an inherited deficit does not have a negative impact on economic growth. Just in case those tax cut pundits misplaced their copy, here is a link to it.
For tax increases to deal with an inherited budget deficit, the results are more interesting. The
point estimates imply that output does not fall at all following deficit-driven tax increases.
(From page 24)
If you would like a really good example of how the tax cut soldiers use this kind of report, here is a link to a recent Art Laffer report, as in the Laffer Curve. If you search this report for "Romer" you will find that he relies on it heavily. I cannot, however, find any reference in his report to an inherited deficit. I also love the title of his report: THE ONSLAUGHT FROM THE LEFT, PART I: FACT VS. FICTION. The true onslaught is a 28 year old attack on the poor and middle class from the right.

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1 comment:

Matt Mandrake said...

Can we talk more about budget and trade deficit reduction and ideas about what would be considered sound approaches to solving these issues? I was speaking to a friend who is a trader for Black Rock and he said that printing more money would be a wise way to buy our way out of our deficits...