Monetary policy and fiscal policy are not equally good as ways to stimulate the economy. Traditional monetary policy (that is, lowering the short-term interest rate) has two key advantages over traditional fiscal policy:
- It does not add to the national debt
- Because many governments have–however controversially–been willing to let monetary policy be handled by an independent central bank, it is not doomed to be tangled up in politics to the same extent that discretionary fiscal policy inevitably gets tangled up in long-running political disputes about taxing and spending.
My subtitle “Expansionary Monetary Policy Does Not Raise the Budget Deficit” is a quotation from Alan Blinder’s October 25, 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed “Our Fiscal Policy Paradox,” where Alan also points to the political difficulties of using discretionary fiscal for macroeconomic stabilization:
The practice of monetary and fiscal policy is fraught with difficulties, but the central concept is straightforward, compelling and, by the way, 75 years old: The government should push the economy forward when unemployment is high and slow it down when inflation threatens.
To do so, governments normally have two principal sets of weapons. Fiscal policy means moving some taxes or elements of public spending up or down to either propel or restrain total spending. In the United States, such decisions are made politically, by Congress and the president. Monetary policy normally (but not now) means lowering or raising short-term interest rates to either speed up growth or slow it down. That power, of course, resides in the technocratic Federal Reserve….
There are plenty of powerful weapons left in the fiscal-policy arsenal. But Congress is tied up in partisan knots that will probably get worse after the election….
But what about using monetary policy? Chairman Ben Bernanke and his Federal Reserve colleagues are not paralyzed by politics. They have not fallen victim to misleading advertising claiming that past policies have not helped. And expansionary monetary policy does not raise the budget deficit. So why the hesitation?
Monetary Policy. My view is that we need tools for macroeconomic stabilization that (a) can be applied technocratically and (b) do not add greatly to national debt when they are used to stimulate the economy. Monetary policy fills that bill, once it is unhobbled by eliminating the zero lower bound. Here is what I wrote in my column “Why Austerity Budgets Won’t Save Your Economy”:
For the US, the most important point is that using monetary policy to stimulate the economy does not add to the national debt and that even when interest rates are near zero, the full effectiveness of monetary policy can be restored if we are willing to make a legal distinction between paper currency and electronic money in bank accounts—treating electronic money as the real thing, and putting paper currency in a subordinate role….
Without the limitations on monetary policy that come from our current paper currency policy, the Fed could lower interest rates enough (even into negative territory for a few quarters if necessary) to offset the effects of even major tax increases and government spending cuts.
The Costs of National Debt. That column is also important in giving some of the best arguments I know for worrying about the national debt now that it is hard to argue that national debt slows economic growth. (On the effect of national debt on economic growth, see my two columns with Yichuan Wang “After Crunching Reinhart and Rogoff’s Data, We Found No Evidence High Debt Slows Growth” and Examining the Entrails: Is There Any Evidence for an Effect of Debt on Growth in the Reinhart and Rogoff Data? and the other work they flag.) Here is what I had to say about the costs of debt in "Why Austerity Budgets Won’t Save Your Economy“:
…lenders are showing no signs of doubting the ability of the US government to pay its debts. But there can be costs to debt even if no one ever doubts that the US government can pay it back.
To understand the other costs of debt, think of an individual going into debt. There are many appropriate reasons to take on debt, despite the burden of paying off the debt:
To deal with an emergency—such as unexpected medical expenses—when it was impossible to be prepared by saving in advance.
To invest in an education or tools needed for a better job.
To buy an affordable house or car that will provide benefits for many years.
There is one more logically coherent reason to take on debt—logically coherent but seldom seen in the real world:
To be able to say with contentment and satisfaction in one’s impoverished old age, “What fun I had when I was young!”
In theory, this could happen if when young, one had a unique opportunity for a wonderful experience—an opportunity that is very rare, worth sacrificing for later on. Another way it could happen is if one simply cared more in general about what happened in one’s youth than about what happened in one’s old age.
Tax increases and government spending cuts are painful. Running up the national debt concentrates and intensifies that pain in the future. Since our budget deficits are not giving us a uniquely wonderful experience now, to justify running up debt, that debt should be either (i) necessary to avoid great pain now, or (ii) necessary to make the future better in a big enough way to make up for the extra debt burden. The idea that running up debt is the only way to stimulate an economic recovery when interest rates are near zero is exactly what I question… If reforming the way we handle paper currency made it clear that running up the debt is not necessary to stimulate the economy, what else could justify increasing our national debt? In that case, only true investments in the future would justify more debt: things like roads, bridges, and scientific knowledge that would still be there in the future yielding benefits—benefits for which our children and we ourselves in the future will be glad to shoulder the burden of debt.
National Lines of Credit: I write about the importance of stabilization policy that can be applied technocratically, without getting tangled up in politics in the context of my other main proposal for stabilization policy: National Lines of Credit (or equivalently "Federal Lines of Credit”). The key post there is “Preventing Recession-Fighting from Becoming a Political Football.” In any case, I think National Lines of Credit would get less tangled up in politics than regular traditional fiscal policy, but it would also be possible to set them up so that they were initiated in an explicitly technocratic way. Here is the relevant passage from my working paper “Getting the Biggest Bang for the Buck in Fiscal Policy”:
The lack of legal authority for central banks to issue national lines of credit is not set in stone. Indeed, for the sake of speed in reacting to threatened recessions, it could be quite valuable to have legislation setting out many of the details of national lines of credit but then authorizing the central bank to choose the timing and (up to some limit) the magnitude of issuance. Even when the Fed funds rate or its equivalent is far from its zero lower bound at the beginning of a recession, the effects of monetary policy take place with a significant lag (partly because of the time it takes to adjust investment plans), while there is reason to think that consumption could be stimulated quickly through the issuance of national lines of credit. Reflecting the fact that national lines of credit lie between traditional monetary and traditional fiscal policy, the rest of the government would still have a role both in establishing the magnitude of this authority and perhaps in mandating the issuance of additional lines of credit over the central bank’s objection (with the overruled central bank free to use contractionary monetary policy for a countervailing effect on aggregate demand).
Though not as good as monetary stimulus, National Lines of Credit are also much better than traditional fiscal policy in yielding a high ratio of stimulus to the amount ultimately added to the national debt.
National Rainy Day Accounts. There is a related mode of stabilization policy that I consider superior to National Lines of Credit. The National Rainy Day Accounts described in this passage of my working paper “Getting the Biggest Bang for the Buck in Fiscal Policy” would not add to the national debt at all:
It is also worth pointing out that, in principle, national lines of credit in times of low demand could be superseded in the long run (at least in part) by a modest level of forced saving in times of high demand, with the funds from these “national rainy day accounts” released to households in time of recession (and also perhaps in the case of one of a well-defined list of documentable personal financial emergencies).
The National Rainy Day Accounts also have household finance benefits for people who have difficulty saving for emergencies without some external discipline. The main limitations of National Rainy Day Accounts as stabilization policy is (a) that they require advance preparation and (b) the resources of National Rainy Day Accounts might sometimes be exhausted before getting enough stimulus.