Federal Spending Gives More Bang-for-Buck than Tax Cuts

 |  Includes: DIA, SPY
by: Jeffrey Frankel

Personal saving rose again in the second quarter. “Does this mean the stimulus tax cut has failed, as the 2008 tax cut stimulus did?”, asks The National Journal.

My answer:

Martin Feldstein and others predicted that the tax-cut component of the 2009 fiscal stimulus package would have substantially less expansionary bang-for-the-buck than the spending component of the package, because much of the tax cut would be saved, as had been the case with the 2008 tax cut. (“Bang for the buck” in this case could be defined as demand stimulus divided by budget cost.) We knew this from Milton Friedman’s permanent income hypothesis, or even from good old Keynesian multiplier theory. But in February, President Obama had to get those last three (Republican) votes for the bill in the Senate, and those three Senators insisted on raising the tax cut component of the stimulus package a bit and lowering the spending component. Their motivation presumably was to mollify their fellow Republicans, many of whom still claim that ONLY tax cuts provide stimulus, and that spending does not (and perhaps even has a negative effect) — which is even more extreme than the claim that a tax cut creates stimulus equal to spending. After the failures of the Bush tax cuts (and Reagan’s before him), I don’t know if any economists still cling to such “supply sider” notions — or indeed if these congressmen would be able to state their logic. Regardless, I think the Feldstein prediction has been borne out since then.

Fortunately, the majority of the stimulus package took the form of increased spending, much of which has yet to come.

None of this is to deny that efficiency is an important consideration, and cost-benefit calculations should always enter into the choice of both what kind of tax cuts to adopt and what kind of spending increases to adopt. But if it is short-term demand stimulus we are after, and we are, then government spending gives more bang for the buck than tax cuts.