William J. Polley: October 2006 Archives

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October 03, 2006

Stiglitz on global imbalances

In today's NY Times, Joseph Stiglitz takes on the topic of the hour. Most of it you have probably heard elsewhere. This part is not always mentioned:

Imagine that the Bush administration suddenly got religion (at least, the religion of fiscal responsibility) and cut expenditures. Assume that raising taxes is unlikely for an administration that has been arguing for further tax cuts. The expenditure cuts by themselves would lead to a weakening of the American and global economy. The Federal Reserve might try to offset this by lowering interest rates, and this might protect the American economy — by encouraging debt-ridden American households to try to take even more money out of their home-equity loans to pay for spending. But that would make America’s future even more precarious.

Yes, there is a tension between the fiscal and monetary authorities in cases like this. That is an important point to make, and is not always made. Stiglitz has a simple solution, however.

There is one way out of this seeming impasse: expenditure cuts combined with an increase in taxes on upper-income Americans and a reduction in taxes on lower-income Americans. The expenditure cuts would, of course, by themselves reduce spending, but because poor individuals consume a larger fraction of their income than the rich, the “switch” in taxes would, by itself, increase spending. If appropriately designed, such a combination could simultaneously sustain the American economy and reduce the deficit.

"If appropriately designed...," is a deus ex machina. This paragraph, I think even the most adamant proponents of tax increases would admit, makes a number of assumptions. One important one would be that the increase in taxes at the high end of the distribution does not reduce saving even further (since he laments our lack of savings earlier in the piece). It also assumes that the tax change would cause enough new spending by "poor individuals" to offset whatever change in consumption and savings occurs at the high end. I suppose one could postulate a Keynesian model and mathematically determine how to change taxes at different income levels--thus the phrase "if appropriately designed". I am understandably skeptical of either party's ability to do the math and appropriately design the new policy. I would also apply the Lucas Critique to any proposed model.

So the title of the piece, "How to Fix the Global Economy," is perhaps too ambitious. It's not that simple, even at the textbook level. Unfortunately, it is hard to fix the global economy in 1000 words--harder still when you have to expend half of your word budget rehashing the yuan issue. He makes an excellent point on the fiscal vs. monetary conflict but reduces the solution to one paragraph that raises more questions than it answers and makes some rather heroic assumptions about our ability to model the effects of these policies as well as our ability to design and implement them. The debate continues.

Posted by William Polley at 01:46 AM