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The case against the fiscal stimulus scholarly article

The case against the fiscal stimulus scholarly article

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Published by Chad Whitehead

The case against the fiscal stimulus scholarly article.

The case against the fiscal stimulus scholarly article.

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Categories:Types, Research, Law
Published by: Chad Whitehead on Dec 11, 2012
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THE CASE AGAINST THE FISCAL STIMULUS
JEFFREY
MiRON*
INTRODUCTION
When President Barack Obama took office
on
January
20,
2009,
the
U.S. economy
had
been
in
recession
for
over
a
year,and
the
prospects
for a
quick recovery appeared bleak.
The
Federal Reserve
had
already lowered interest rates
to
zero,which implied that monetary policy
was
unlikely
to
providefurther stimulus.' Thus,
the
Administration, along with manyeconomists
and
pundits, turned
to the
other
key
pillar
of
stabi-lization policy: fiscal stimulus.The fiscal approach
was
immediately controversial, however,for
two
main reasons. First, academic economists have come
to
regard fiscal policy
as
less suitable than monetary policy
for
stabilization purposes, principally because monetary policy
can
act quickly, whereas fiscal policy
can
suffer significant delaysin adoption, implementation,
and
impact.^ Second,
the
U.S.
was
already facing
a
dismal long-term fiscal outlook because
of
programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security,
the
wars
in
Iraq
and
Afghanistan,
and the
TARP bailout. This outlookmade some economists wary
of new
measures that would
in-
crease
the
deficit, even
if
only temporarily.
Yet the
Administra-tion apparently concluded that
it had no
alternative given
the
state
of the
economy,
so it
plowed ahead with
a
fiscal stimulus.Deciding
to
adopt
a
 fiscal
 sfimulus, however,
did not
resolve
all
of the issues. The other question was what combination
of
tax cutsand expenditure increases
to
include
in the
stimulus package.Strict Keynesian theory holds that
any tax cut or
spending
in-
* Department
of
Economics, Harvard University.
1.
The
Conscience
of a
Liberal, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/
(Jan. 19,
2009,
07:58 EST).
2.
Martin Feldstein,
Rethinking
the
Role
of
Fiscal Policy,
99 AM.
ECON.
REV.
556,
556
(2009).
 
520
Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy
[Vol.
33
crease
can
stimulate
the
economy, even
if
the tax
cut
is
badly
de-
signed
and
even
if
the increased spending is
for
worthless junk.^ Ifthis perspective
is
right, quibbling about
the
exact composition
of
the package is neither necessary
nor
fruitful.I argue here, however, that
the
structure
of a
fiscal stimulusis crucially important
and
that
the
package Congress adoptedwas
far
from ideal, regardless
of the
merits
of the
Keynesianmodel. Whether countercyclical fiscal policy
is
beneficial
is a
more difficult question,
but it is not
the
critical issue
if a
stimu-lus package
is
properly designed.
In
fact,
the
Administrationcould have created
a
package that stimulated
the
economy
in
the short term while improving economic performance
in the
long term. This package, moreover, would have been immuneto criticism from Republicans.
The
stimulus adopted
was a
missed opportunity
of
colossal proportions.That
the
Administration
and
Congress chose
the
particularstimulus adopted suggests that stimulating
the
economy
was
not their only objective. Instead,
the
Administration used
the
recession
and the
financial crisis
to
redistribute resources
to fa-
vored interest groups (unions,
the
green lobby,
and
public educa-tion)
and to
increase
the
size
and
scope
of
govemment.* This
re-
distribution does
not
make every element
of the
packageindefensible,
but
even
the
components w^ith
a
plausible justifica-tion were designed
in the
least productive
and
most redistribu-tionist
way
possible.The remainder
of
this Essay
is
organized
as
follows. Part
I
dis-
cusses
the
arguments
for and
against fiscal sfimulus. Parts ÏÏ-IVexamine
the
main components
of the
sfimulus
(tax
cuts, energyprograms,
and
infrastructure spending, respecfively). Part
V ad-
dresses other miscellaneous components. Part
VI
considers
the
broader implications
of
the
 fiscal
 stimulus.
I. THE
KEYNESIAN MODEL
The standard justification
for a
fiscal sfimulus relies
on the
Keynesian model
of
the
economy. This model
has
been taught
to
3.
For
a
standard presentation
of the
Keynesian model,
see N.
GREGORY
MANKIW, PRINCIPLES
OF
ECONOMICS
737-826 (5th ed. 2008).
4.
See
WSJ.com, Getting
to
$787 Billion, http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/STIMULUS_FINAL_0217.html (last visited
Jan. 27,
2009) (listing morespending
on
the
environment than
on tax
cuts).
 
No.
2]
Case Against
the
Fiscal Stimulus
521generations of college students in economics classes around theworld, and economists widely—though not universally—acceptit as the starting point for analyzing booms and recessions.^According to the Keynesian model, recessions occur becauseof a lack of aggregate demand, and government can remedy thisshortfall by stimulating demand. On the one hand, governmentcan increase its own demand for goods and services, for exampleby building more highways, purchasing more military aircraft,or funding additional research and development.'' On the otherhand, government can increase demand from consumers andfirms by reducing taxes or increasing transfers.''Although the Keynesian model of fiscal stimulus is widelyaccepted, it remains controversial as a justification for policyinterventions. The first difficulty with Keynesian fiscal stimulusis that the lag between recognition that an intervention might benecessary and the impact of that intervention is likely to be longand variable, so policy can easily end up stimulating when itshould be contracting, or vice versa.^ Thus, the practice of coun-tercyclical policy is likely difficult even if the theory is iinassail-
able.
Over the past several decades, most economists have there-fore gradually emphasized monetary policy as the moreappropriate tool for countercyclical policy. Lags in monetarypolicy—although still relevant—tend to be shorter on average.^The current recession, for example, began in December 2007, yetthe fiscal stimulus was not adopted until February 2009, andmuch of the planned spending will occur in 2010.^°The second issue is that, although Keynesian theory says thatthe choice of spending projects does not matter, spending onprojects that meet standard cost-benefit criteria makes the mostsense and ensures the best use of taxpayer resources in theshort term. Further, temporary programs may become longterm or permanent given the political difficulties of eliminatinggovernment programs.
5.
See
MANKIW,
supra
note
3,
at
737-826.6.
See
id.
at
787-88.7.
See
id.
at
792-93.8.
See
id.
at
830-31.
9. Feldstein,
supra
note 2,
at
556.
10.
Brian Wingfield & Joshua Zumbrun,
Stimulus? Yes, in 2010,
FORBES.COM, Jan.
28,
2009, http://www.forbes.com/2009/01/28/economy-stimulus-unemployment-congress-business-washington_0128_stimulus.html.

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