Less than a week ago, I wrote in a post on my blog: “So there is something we can do with fiscal policy, without increasing government debt. Why does hardly anyone talk about this?” Two days ago Ian Mulheirn from the Social Market Foundation published a detailed proposal exactly along these lines. (There is also a short piece in Monday’s Financial Times.) A coincidence of course, but very welcome.
This proposal involves bringing forward by four years £15 billion of tax increases pencilled in for after 2015, and using that money for temporary infrastructure spending in those four years. This is a specific example of a more general idea, that you can stimulate demand through additional but temporary increases in government spending financed by temporary increases in taxes. The proposition that this will stimulate aggregate demand is a pretty robust bit of macroeconomic theory. In fact we can go further, and say that the benchmark multiplier for such a policy will be at least one. This suggests that this proposal, by using OBR figures, may be rather conservative in its estimate of the impact on UK growth.
The multiplier will be one if consumers are of the simple Keynesian type who consume some constant fraction of their current income. Higher taxes will reduce their income, but as long as their propensity to consume is less than one, there is a net positive effect on demand, which gets translated into higher output and higher income. But higher income leads to higher consumption, and we get the famous ‘balanced budget multiplier’ of one which every first year undergraduate learns how to prove. However, as Professor Michael Woodford has recently shown, we get exactly the same multiplier of one if consumers are much more sophisticated, and look at their entire lifetime income when planning their consumption. The basic intuition here is that any temporary tax increase gets smoothed over their lifetime, so the impact on current consumption is small. As the simple Keynesian case shows, any short term impact there is will be offset by higher incomes generated by higher government spending.
This all assumes an unchanged level of real interest rates. Higher aggregate demand should lead to some increase in expected inflation. If the Bank of England keeps nominal interest rates unchanged (which, with inflation falling, they should), then real interest rates will fall, which will provide an additional stimulus to demand. That is why the benchmark multiplier will be at least one. If the government spending is in the form of useful infrastructure projects, this has the additional bonus of increasing future supply.
Why have tax financed temporary increases in public investment not been part of the austerity versus stimulus debate so far? For those who oppose austerity, I think the problem is a (correct) belief that debt financed increases in spending would be even more effective at stimulating demand (because ‘Ricardian Equivalence’ does not hold), and that the short term dangers of increasing debt are vastly overblown. While I think this line is right in principle, I fear this debate is unwinnable so long as the Eurozone crisis continues, and the media obsesses about ratings agencies. We can argue till the cows come home that the Eurozone is different, because these countries do not have their own central bank, and that the market takes no notice of ratings agencies, but these arguments are drowned out by the daily news about Greece and other Eurozone economies.
On the other side, among those who favour austerity, I think there is a reluctance to consider policies that increase the size of the state, even though this would only be for a few years. There is also the obvious unpopularity of tax increases. However there is now a real danger that by the time of the next election UK unemployment may still be rising and the recovery will be modest. It is going to be very hard to win an election with this record. (I do not think Argentina will distract attention again as it did in 1982!) The great advantage of tax financed increases in spending is that they stimulate the economy without going back on the austerity pledge. Indeed, because they stimulate growth, they reduce headline budget deficit figures and so increase the likelihood that austerity will be successful in bringing down the ratio of debt to GDP.
So these proposals from the Social Market Foundation are very welcome indeed. They show that something can be done to stimulate the economy without increasing debt. Of course there is a great deal of discussion still to be had on what taxes to increase, and what investment to fund. However from a macroeconomic point of view most combinations will succeed in stimulating the economy. With unemployment continuing to rise, there is still time to act. It is imperative that we do.