Thursday, February 05, 2009

My Preferred Fiscal Stimulus

Regular readers of this blog have a pretty good sense of my policy preferences. But for those occasional readers who might be stopping by, let me reiterate what I would do right now if I were the fiscal king.

I would institute an immediate and permanent reduction in the payroll tax, financed by a gradual, permanent, and substantial increase in the gasoline tax. I would make the two tax changes equal in present value, so while the package results in a short-run budget deficit, there is no long-term budget impact. Call it the create-jobs, save-the-environment, reduce-traffic-congestion, budget-neutral tax shift.

I recognize that some state governments are now struggling in light of the macroeconomic crisis. For the next two years, I would let each state governor have the authority to divert a portion of the payroll tax cut in his or her state and take the funds instead as state aid. This provision would essentially be giving governors the temporary authority to impose a payroll tax on his or her citizens, collected via the federal tax system. Those governors who think they have valuable infrastructure projects ready to go would take the money. When designing a fiscal stimulus, there is no compelling reason for one size fits all. Let each governor make a choice and answer to his or her state voters. It is called federalism.

Any further federal spending projects should be evaluated on the basis of cost-benefit analysis. That analysis would take time, but it would ensure that the projects are not a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Some traditional Keynesians would object on the grounds that government spending has a larger multiplier than tax cuts. Even though that is the prediction of standard Keynesian models, the evidence is not completely consistent with that conclusion, as I have discussed here in previous posts. In addition, given the lags inherent in large spending projects, and the risks inherent in hasty spending at the federal level, the case for taxes over spending as the fiscal instrument of choice is compelling. To me, at least.

None of this should be viewed as a substitute for fixing the banking system and trying to come up with a better process for homeowners and banks to work out mortgage loans in default. Housing and finance are the real sources of the macro problem. Any fiscal stimulus, such as the one I propose above, is only an attempt to mitigate the symptoms. Those symptoms are severe, so mitigation is fully appropriate. But fiscal policy is not a panacea for what now ails the economy.