TAXING LESS OR SPENDING MORE?
Addressing this question requires not only data about the past year or two, but also analysis of some key assumptions at the core of the administration's approach to fiscal policy. In particular, that approach seems to take for granted that the question in choosing between spending and tax cuts is which would have the greater multiplier effect, and that the answer to that question is spending rather than tax cuts.
The first assumption overlooks an important difference between spending and tax cuts in the context of economic stimulus. When the government is seeking to revive its sick patient — the economy — time is of the essence. And time must be considered in any analysis of multipliers and other economic effects of stimulus policy. Chief among these considerations is whether government can spend money both quickly and wisely.
Many of us can draw on our own experiences in addressing that question. Anyone familiar with government projects even at the municipal level knows that the process is usually prolonged and onerous. Even if the design phase is managed well, the project is built efficiently, and the end product proves to be of good use to the community — all big "ifs" — the time involved in debating project proposals, securing approval from citizens and local boards, planning the design, hiring contractors, and completing the construction often stretches to years. Cram the process into a dramatically shortened time frame, and the likelihood that the project will be an example of "wise" government spending diminishes significantly. Expand the scope of the government spending from town planning to national fiscal policy, and the likelihood shrinks even further.
This is not just a matter of government waste, but also a question of whether money spent under such circumstances actually helps the economy grow in a way that best enhances citizens' well-being. Whenever public money is involved, it is important to ask whether the spending will produce something society needs, or wants, to improve the general economic climate. Money spent on a new road that allows farmers to get their products to market faster and in better condition, for instance, creates more value than money spent building a "bridge to nowhere," even if both projects create the same number of construction jobs.
To look at it another way: If a person pays his neighbor $100 to dig a hole in his backyard and then fill it up again, and the neighbor hires him to do the same, government statisticians will report that the economy has created two jobs and that the gross domestic product has risen by $200. But it is unlikely that, having wasted all that time digging and filling, either person is better off — economically or otherwise. Each person's net financial gain is zero, and all anyone has to show for the effort is a patch of fresh dirt in the backyard, which is unlikely to improve anyone's standard of living.
Private individuals don't usually spend their money on things they don't want or need. So when money is kept in the hands of citizens, and transactions take place in the private sector, there is less cause to worry about inefficient spending. The same cannot always be said of government. This means that government spending designed to stimulate the economy must first be subjected to serious cost-benefit analysis, which is hard to do in a big rush. Not all government spending is created equal — and rushed spending is, in many important ways, likely to be less efficient and less useful than spending that is carefully planned.
The administration's second assumption, meanwhile, is a matter of academic theories about the sizes of the relevant economic multipliers. Textbook Keynesian economics tells us that government-purchases multipliers are larger than tax-cut multipliers. And, as we have seen, the Obama administration's economic team consulted these standard models in deciding that spending would be significantly more effective than tax cuts.
But a great deal of recent economic evidence calls that conclusion into question. In an ironic twist, one key piece comes from Christina Romer, who is now chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. About six months before she took the job, Romer teamed up with her husband and fellow Berkeley economist David Romer to write a paper ("The Macroeconomic Effects of Tax Changes") that sought to measure the influence of tax policy on GDP. Crucial to the Romers' method was their effort to identify changes in tax policy made during times of relative economic stability, and driven by a desire to influence economic behavior or activity (to encourage growth, say, or reduce a deficit), rather than those changes made in response to a recession or crisis. By studying such "exogenous" tax-policy changes, the Romers could be more confident that they were in fact measuring the effects of taxes and not those of extraneous conditions.
The Romers' conclusion, which is at odds with most traditional Keynesian analysis, was that the tax multiplier was 3 — in other words, that every dollar spent on tax cuts would boost GDP by $3. This would mean that the tax multiplier is roughly three times larger than Obama's advisors assumed it was during their policy simulations.
Of course, it could be that all multipliers are larger than previously assumed. Perhaps fiscal policy has such a great influence over our economy that, if the tax multiplier is 3, the government-spending multiplier is 4 or 5. We don't know from the Romers' study; they did not analyze government-spending multipliers, only tax multipliers. But several studies on government-spending multipliers have been conducted using techniques similar to those used by the Romers. And none has found government-spending multipliers to be so large as to justify assumptions about the inherent superiority of government spending over tax cuts.
Some excellent work on this topic has come from Valerie Ramey of the University of California, San Diego. Ramey finds a government-spending multiplier of about 1.4 — a figure close to what the Obama administration assumed, but much smaller than the tax multiplier identified by the Romers. Similarly, in recent research, Andrew Mountford (of the University of London) and Harald Uhlig (of the University of Chicago) have used sophisticated statistical techniques that try to capture the complicated relationships among economic variables over time; they conclude that a "deficit-financed tax cut is the best fiscal policy to stimulate the economy." In particular, they report that tax cuts are about four times as potent as increases in government spending.
Perhaps the most compelling research on this subject is a very recent study by my colleagues Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna at Harvard. They used data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to identify every major fiscal stimulus adopted by the 30 OECD countries between 1970 and 2007. Alesina and Ardagna then separated those plans that were in fact followed by robust economic growth from those that were not, and compared their characteristics. They found that the stimulus packages that appeared to be successful had cut business and income taxes, while those that evidently did not succeed had increased government spending and transfer payments.
There is a case to be made for a broad-based payroll-tax cut that might have this effect, but a narrower tax cut for new hires suffers from some major flaws. The basic problem is that we do not know how to properly define — or enforce a definition of — a "new hire." Presumably we do not want a business to hire Peter by firing Paul and to then call Peter a new hire; this would cause a great deal of inefficient churning in the labor force (not to mention a great deal of unpleasantness for all the Pauls).
Usually when tax credits for new hires are proposed, the idea is to establish some baseline employment — based on a firm's labor force a year or two earlier — and give credit to businesses that meet or exceed their baselines. But relying on such baselines can be problematic. Consider an industry hit particularly hard by a recession — say, construction — in which employment is well below the baseline established for new-hire tax breaks. Because a few new hires would still not make these firms eligible for the tax credits, these firms would have no marginal incentive to hire additional workers. Conversely, industries that have been expanding would be rewarded for hires they might have made even without the tax incentives. This policy, then, would likely create tremendous disparities across industries that could be both inequitable and inefficient. It would also create perverse incentives in favor of new firms: By definition, all employees of a new firm are "new hires." This could even give existing firms an incentive to, say, lay off the janitorial staff and hire instead an independent janitorial contractor that just started up as a new firm, since the cost per worker to the old firm could well be lower.
Attractive as such ideas may seem at first, targeted tax cuts and incentives are in fact very difficult to implement properly. If tax cuts indeed make for better fiscal stimulus than direct government spending, they should be broad-based cuts or incentives, rather than narrowly tailored interventions.
Here again, the fiscal-policy decisions of the past year and a half have not been implausible or inexplicable — but they have also not been empirically shown to work. The data point to other approaches.