Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Is Deficit Spending the Answer?

Copyright, The New York Times Company

Deficit spending comes in several different flavors, each of which varies in terms of its effect on the labor market and the economy.

Deficit spending occurs when government spending exceeds government revenue. By official estimates, the federal government budget deficit has been $1.3 trillion during each of the last three fiscal years and even larger the year before that, when the financial crisis and bailouts were at their peaks. Previously, the federal deficit had never reached $0.5 trillion.

The alternatives to deficit spending are a balanced budget or a surplus budget, when government revenue is at least as much as its spending.

Economists do not fully agree about the macroeconomic effects of deficit spending, compared with the balanced-budget alternative, but they do agree that not all deficit spending is the same. Deficit spending that is the result of extra government spending is different from deficits that come from tax cuts. Moreover, the forms of the extra spending matter, as do the forms of the tax cuts and how the debt will be repaid in the future.



One form of deficit spending is extra government employment (civilian or military), as during wartime, paid for with extra taxes after the war is over. This type of spending probably increases aggregate employment during the war because the government is paying people to work and, while the deficit spending lasts, not yet taxing them extra for working.

This type of deficit spending is relevant today, because America continues to fight wars in the Middle East and to fight the war on drugs in our hemisphere. However, this type is not much different during the last four years of trillion-plus deficits than it was before.

The more important source of enlarged federal deficits is increased spending on transfers, like food stamps and unemployment insurance, and in-kind subsidies for the poor, like Medicaid. Transfer spending helps poor people, but paying people for low incomes or for unemployment has the effect of reducing the reward to work, rather than increasing it as government employment programs might.

By considering work incentives, I conclude that the contribution of transfer spending to the deficits of the last four years have reduced employment, rather than increasing it as wartime deficits might.

The temporary payroll tax cut has also added to the government deficit over the last two years. The payroll tax is levied on people who work and not on people who are out of work, so the cut had the effect of reducing the tax penalty on work. This helped offset the employment-depressing effect of transfers, although my estimates suggest that the offset was less than 100 percent (more on those in future blog entries).

Deficit spending adds to the government debt, because the government has to borrow to obtain the funds it does not have from taxes. It is sometimes argued that deficit spending reduces employment because of fears over the future repayment of the debt. But future fears can also encourage people to work harder to save more for the bad economic situation that is anticipated in the future and to work harder to take advantage of today’s tax rates, which might seem low compared with what lies ahead.

Moreover, the bond market pays dearly for United States government bonds: they may be the most expensive bonds (that is, the bonds with the lowest yields) in the world. If the market continues to value United States government bonds so dearly, much of the United States debt may never need to be paid off.

This may seem like a free lunch, but economists understand it as a “liquidity service,” or feeling of safety that the government supplies to the marketplace for which the government is compensated (Milton Friedman’s classic argument said low yields on government securities indicate that more of the securities should be supplied to the market).

The secret to understanding the effects of deficit spending on the labor market and the economy is to examine the incentives created by the additional spending and by tax cuts.

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