The National Debt Clock is a very very large digital display of the current gross national debt of the United States Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Whatever Happened to Saving for a Rainy Day?

The US will be paying for its current fiscal excesses with the promise of future payments. But inefficient economic stimulus now will not give future generations the productive resources needed to make good on it.

CAMBRIDGE – More than a decade ago, I undertook a study, together with Graciela Kaminsky of George Washington University and Carlos Végh, now the World Bank’s chief economist for Latin America and the Caribbean, examining more than 100 countries’ fiscal policies for much of the postwar era. We concluded that advanced economies’ fiscal policies tended to be either independent of the business cycle (acyclical) or to lean in the opposite direction (countercyclical). Built-in stabilizers, like unemployment insurance, are part of the story, but government outlays also worked to smooth the economic cycle.

The benefit of countercyclical policies is that government debt as a share of GDP falls during good times. That provides fiscal space when recessions materialize, without jeopardizing long-run debt sustainability.

By contrast, in most emerging-market economies, fiscal policy was procyclical: government spending increased when the economy was approaching full employment. This tendency leaves countries poorly positioned to inject stimulus when bad times come again. In fact, it sets the stage for dreaded austerity measures that make bad times worse.

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