Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tax Cuts Could Deepen The Recession

There has been non-stop debate between Republicans and Democrats for the past couple weeks regarding how the economic stimulus bill should be structured. Republicans want a majority to go towards tax cuts, and the Democrats want to see high levels of spending. It appears that the Democrats are going to win out in this debate, thinks to their heavy numbers advantage, but according to the New York Fed's Gauti Eggertsson that is a good thing. He wrote a paper theorizing that in today's economic environment tax cuts have the potential to backfire, and possibly even deepen the recession. Economics professor and author of the Economist's View blog, Mark Thoma, looks at this closer in his blog post below.

Justin Wolfers summarizes a paper that suggests government spending would be better than tax cuts at reviving the economy:

Tax Cuts vs. Government Spending, by Justin Wolfers: As the Senate and the House look to reconcile competing stimulus plans, the big debate is whether to emphasize government spending or tax cuts. A new paper by the New York Fed’s Gauti Eggertsson argues that the risk of deflation should tilt the balance to government spending.

Our current problem is deficient aggregate demand. The government can raise total spending either by buying more stuff, or it can lower taxes and hope that consumers take their tax breaks to the mall. ...

But that’s not the whole story. Tax cuts stimulate both aggregate demand and aggregate supply. If taxes are temporarily lower, they make working today more attractive than working tomorrow, and thus increase labor supply. This boost to the nation’s productive capacity means that a tax-cut-based stimulus doesn’t do as much to narrow the gap between output and what we can produce.

Under normal circumstances, this doesn’t present a problem, because the Fed can lower interest rates to close this output gap. But right now, the Fed has set interest rates as low as they can go, and so different principles apply. Eggertsson’s concern is that a big output gap will lead inflation to fall, leading real interest rates to rise in the middle of the recession. These higher real interest rates further dampen economic activity, and with the Fed powerless to offset this, there’s the very real risk of a deflationary spiral. And so a tax-cut-based fiscal stimulus might actually backfire. In fact, Eggertsson reckons there’s a chance that tax cuts could even deepen the recession.

Is Eggertson’s conjecture right? Unfortunately the historical record can’t tell us: there’s never been an episode in which we’ve tried reducing taxes when interest rates were this low. When we’re in uncharted waters, we’ve got nothing but economic theory to guide us. And the theory says it’s safer to stick to a spending-based stimulus plan.

I'd like to be able to rely on this as one more piece of evidence for government spending over taxes, but I have doubts that the aggregate supply (labor supply) effect would be large enough to make much of a difference. The author also suggests caution:

I am bit hesitant to draw the lesson from this paper that it would be ideal to raise payroll taxes to stimulate the US economy today, although this clearly is a direct implication of the analysis

And he also says:

What should we take out of all of this? ...[One] lesson is that policymakers today should view with great deal of skepticisms any empirical evidence on the effect of tax cuts or government spending based on post war US data. The number of these studies is high, and they are frequently cited in the current debate. The model presented here, which has by now become a workhorse model in macroeconomics, predicts that the effect of tax cuts and government spending is fundamentally different at zero nominal interest rates than under normal circumstances.

This post can also be viewed on economistsview.typepad.com.

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