The world is in the grip of a debate between fiscal austerity and fiscal stimulus. Opponents of austerity worry about contractionary effects on the economy. Opponents of stimulus worry about indebtedness and moral hazard.
Is austerity good or bad? It is as foolish to debate this proposition as it would be to debate whether it is better for a driver to turn left or right. It depends where the car is on the road. Sometimes left is appropriate, sometimes right. When an economy is in a boom, the government should run a surplus; other times, when in recession, it should run a deficit.
True, it is hard for politicians to get the timing of countercyclical fiscal policy exactly right. This is the reason, more than any other, why Keynesian policy lost its luster. “Fine-tuning” it was called. Sometimes the fiscal stimulus would kick in after the recession was already over.
But this is no reason to follow a pro-cyclical fiscal policy. A procyclical fiscal policy piles on the spending and tax cuts on top of booms, but reduces spending and raises taxes in response to downturns. Budgetary profligacy during expansion; austerity in recessions. Procyclical fiscal policy is destabilizing, because it worsens the dangers of overheating, inflation, and asset bubbles during the booms and exacerbates the losses in output and employment during the recessions. In other words, a procyclical fiscal policy magnifies the severity of the business cycle.
Yet many politicians in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the eurozone seem to live by procyclicality. They argue against fiscal discipline when the economy is strong, only to become deficit hawks when the economy is weak. Exactly backwards.
Consider the positions taken over the last three decades by some American politicians.
First cycle: During a recessionary period, President Ronald Reagan in his 1980 campaign and in his 1981 Inaugural Address urged immediate action to reduce the national debt “beginning today.” (Recession: austerity.) But in 1988, as the economy approached the peak of the business cycle, candidate George H.W. Bush was unconcerned about budget deficits, even though the national debt was rapidly approaching three times the level it had been when Reagan had given his speeches. “Read my lips, no new taxes,” Bush famously said. (Boom: profligacy.)
Second cycle: Predictably, the first President Bush and the Congress finally summoned the political will to raise taxes and rein in spending growth at precisely the wrong moment, that is, just as the US was entering another recession in 1990. (Recession: austerity.) Although the timing of the legislation was poor, the action was courageous. The Pay as You Go Rule and other reforms switched government finances back onto a path that eventually was to eliminate the deficits by the end of the decade.
But three years later — and even though the most robust recovery in American history had begun — every Republican congressman voted against Clinton’s 1993 legislation to continue Bush’s spending caps, PAYGO, and tax increases. Nor did they change their minds in response to the subsequent success of the policy. Even after seven years of strong growth, with unemployment at the peak of the business cycle dipping below 4% for the first time since the 1960s, George W. Bush based his 2000 campaign on a platform of large long-term tax cuts. (Boom: profligacy.)
Third cycle: Even after the Bush fiscal expansion had turned the inherited record budget surpluses into record deficits, the Administration went for a 2nd round of tax cuts in 2003, and continued a rate of growth of spending that was triple the rate under Clinton (both national security and domestic spending). Vice President Richard Cheney said “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” These policies were maintained for five more years, as another $ four trillion was added to the national debt. (Boom: profligacy.)
Predictably, when the worst recession since the Great Depression hit in 2007-09, politicians felt constrained from an adequate fiscal response due to the big deficits and debts the government had already been running. Republicans suddenly re-discovered the evil of budget deficits and decided that retrenchment was urgent. They opposed Obama’s initial fiscal stimulus in February 2009, even though GDP growth and employment were much worse than they had been when Reagan and Bush had launched their tax cuts and spending increases. (Recession: austerity.) Subsequently, with a new majority in the House, they succeeded in blocking further efforts by Obama when the stimulus ran out in 2011. The government spending cutbacks of the last two years are the most important reason, in my view, why the economic recovery which began in June 2009 subsequently stalled in 2011.
Three cycles. Three generations of politicians who favored expansionary fiscal policies during a boom and then decided after a recession had hit that budget deficits were bad after all. (See the graph below.)
This is not to say that the procyclicalist politicians have always succeeded in getting their policies adopted. Clinton had a strong enough congressional majority in August 1993 that he was able to pass his budget balancing legislation (Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) — even though every Republican in Congress voted “no” at a time when the economy was expanding. Similarly, Obama had a strong enough majority in January 2009 that he was able to pass some initial fiscal stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), without a single Republican vote, at a time when the economy was in freefall. But too often the countercyclicalists are overpowered by the procyclicalists.
Trying to turn left or right at precisely the wrong points in the road is a worse record than one would get by switching policies randomly. To explain this perverse pattern, let us switch metaphors in mid-stream. It is the old problem of needing to fix the hole in the roof when the sun is shining, rather than waiting for a storm to realize that it is necessary. When the economy is booming, there is no political support for painful spending cuts or tax increases. After all, everything seems fine; why make a change? Then when the deluge comes, sinners suddenly see the evils of their ways and proclaim the necessity of reforming. Of course it is very difficult to fix the roof in the middle of a thunderstorm.
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[An earlier version of this op-ed (without the graph) appeared at Project Syndicate.]