Government and Fiscal Policy

Read this chapter to learn about how the government's fiscal actions influence aggregate demand. The chapter first introduces the components of the government's budget and then discusses discretionary fiscal policy and automatic stabilizers used to influence the economy. Some lags in the implementation of fiscal policy are identified and the concept of crowding out is introduced. Attempt the "Try It" exercises at the end of the section.

3. Issues in Fiscal Policy

Choice of Policy

Suppose Congress and the president agree that something needs to be done to close a recessionary gap. We have learned that fiscal policies that increase government purchases, reduce taxes, or increase transfer payments – or do a combination of these – all have the potential, theoretically, to raise real GDP. The government must decide which kind of fiscal policy to employ. Because the decision makers who determine fiscal policy are all elected politicians, the choice among the policy options available is an intensely political matter, often reflecting the ideology of the politicians.

For example, those who believe that government is too big would argue for tax cuts to close recessionary gaps and for spending cuts to close inflationary gaps. Those who believe that the private sector has failed to provide adequately a host of services that would benefit society, such as better education or public transportation systems, tend to advocate increases in government purchases to close recessionary gaps and tax increases to close inflationary gaps.

Another area of contention comes from those who believe that fiscal policy should be constructed primarily so as to promote long-term growth. Supply-side economics is the school of thought that promotes the use of fiscal policy to stimulate long-run aggregate supply. Supply-side economists advocate reducing tax rates in order to encourage people to work more or more individuals to work and providing investment tax credits to stimulate capital formation.

While there is considerable debate over how strong the supply-side effects are in relation to the demand-side effects, such considerations may affect the choice of policies. Supply-siders tend to favor tax cuts over increases in government purchases or increases in transfer payments. President Reagan advocated tax cuts in 1981 on the basis of their supply-side effects. Coupled with increased defense spending in the early 1980s, fiscal policy under Mr. Reagan clearly stimulated aggregate demand by increasing both consumption and investment. Falling inflation and accelerated growth are signs that supply-side factors may also have been at work during that period. President George W. Bush's chief economic adviser, N. Gregory Mankiw, argued that the Bush tax cuts would encourage economic growth, a supply-side argument. Mr. Bush's next chief economic adviser, Ben Bernanke, who became the next chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in 2006, made a similar argument and urged that the Bush tax cuts be made permanent.

Finally, even when there is agreement to stimulate the economy, say through increasing government expenditures on highways, the how question remains. How should the expenditures be allocated? Specifically, which states should the highways run through? Each member of Congress has a political stake in the outcome. These types of considerations make the implementation lag particularly long for fiscal policy.