An Outline of the US Economy: Monetary and Fiscal Policy

Read this chapter by Christopher Conte, a former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and Albert R. Karr, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, for a historical perspective on fiscal and monetary policy, its evolution over the years, and its current functionality.

Fiscal Policy and Economic Stabilization

In the 1930s, with the United States reeling from the Great Depression, the government began to use fiscal policy not just to support itself or pursue social policies but to promote overall economic growth and stability as well. Policy-makers were influenced by John Maynard Keynes, an English economist who argued in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money that the rampant joblessness of his time resulted from inadequate demand for goods and services. According to Keynes, people did not have enough income to buy everything the economy could produce, so prices fell and companies lost money or went bankrupt. Without government intervention, Keynes said, this could become a vicious cycle. As more companies went bankrupt, he argued, more people would lose their jobs, making income fall further and leading yet more companies to fail in a frightening downward spiral. Keynes argued that government could halt the decline by increasing spending on its own or by cutting taxes. Either way, incomes would rise, people would spend more, and the economy could start growing again. If the government had to run up a deficit to achieve this purpose, so be it, Keynes said. In his view, the alternative – deepening economic decline – would be worse.

Keynes's ideas were only partially accepted during the 1930s, but the huge boom in military spending during World War II seemed to confirm his theories. As government spending surged, people's incomes rose, factories again operated at full capacity, and the hardships of the Depression faded into memory. After the war, the economy continued to be fueled by pent-up demand from families who had deferred buying homes and starting families.

By the 1960s, policy-makers seemed wedded to Keynesian theories. But in retrospect, most Americans agree, the government then made a series of mistakes in the economic policy arena that eventually led to a reexamination of fiscal policy. After enacting a tax cut in 1964 to stimulate economic growth and reduce unemployment, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress launched a series of expensive domestic spending programs designed to alleviate poverty. Johnson also increased military spending to pay for American involvement in the Vietnam War. These large government programs, combined with strong consumer spending, pushed the demand for goods and services beyond what the economy could produce. Wages and prices started rising. Soon, rising wages and prices fed each other in an ever-rising cycle. Such an overall increase in prices is known as inflation.

Keynes had argued that during such periods of excess demand, the government should reduce spending or raise taxes to avert inflation. But anti-inflation fiscal policies are difficult to sell politically, and the government resisted shifting to them. Then, in the early 1970s, the nation was hit by a sharp rise in international oil and food prices. This posed an acute dilemma for policy-makers. The conventional anti-inflation strategy would be to restrain demand by cutting federal spending or raising taxes. But this would have drained income from an economy already suffering from higher oil prices. The result would have been a sharp rise in unemployment. If policy-makers chose to counter the loss of income caused by rising oil prices, however, they would have had to increase spending or cut taxes. Since neither policy could increase the supply of oil or food, however, boosting demand without changing supply would merely mean higher prices.

President Jimmy Carter sought to resolve the dilemma with a two-pronged strategy. He geared fiscal policy toward fighting unemployment, allowing the federal deficit to swell and establishing countercyclical jobs programs for the unemployed. To fight inflation, he established a program of voluntary wage and price controls. Neither element of this strategy worked well. By the end of the 1970s, the nation suffered both high unemployment and high inflation.

While many Americans saw this "stagflation" as evidence that Keynesian economics did not work, another factor further reduced the government's ability to use fiscal policy to manage the economy. Deficits now seemed to be a permanent part of the fiscal scene. Deficits had emerged as a concern during the stagnant 1970s. Then, in the 1980s, they grew further as President Ronald Reagan pursued a program of tax cuts and increased military spending. By 1986, the deficit had swelled to $221,000 million, or more than 22 percent of total federal spending. Now, even if the government wanted to pursue spending or tax policies to bolster demand, the deficit made such a strategy unthinkable.

Beginning in the late 1980s, reducing the deficit became the predominant goal of fiscal policy. With foreign trade opportunities expanding rapidly and technology spinning off new products, there seemed to be little need for government policies to stimulate growth. Instead, officials argued, a lower deficit would reduce government borrowing and help bring down interest rates, making it easier for businesses to acquire capital to finance expansion. The government budget finally returned to surplus in 1998. This led to calls for new tax cuts, but some of the enthusiasm for lower taxes was tempered by the realization that the government would face major budget challenges early in the new century as the enormous post-war baby-boom generation reached retirement and started collecting retirement checks from the Social Security system and medical benefits from the Medicare program.

By the late 1990s, policy-makers were far less likely than their predecessors to use fiscal policy to achieve broad economic goals. Instead, they focused on narrower policy changes designed to strengthen the economy at the margins. President Reagan and his successor, George Bush, sought to reduce taxes on capital gains – that is, increases in wealth resulting from the appreciation in the value of assets such as property or stocks. They said such a change would increase incentives to save and invest. Democrats resisted, arguing that such a change would overwhelmingly benefit the rich. But as the budget deficit shrank, President Clinton acquiesced, and the maximum capital gains rate was trimmed to 20 percent from 28 percent in 1996. Clinton, meanwhile, also sought to affect the economy by promoting various education and job-training programs designed to develop a highly skilled – and hence, more productive and competitive – labor force.