The First World’s Fiscal Follies
CAMBRIDGE – The world’s advanced economies remain divided over whether to strengthen budget balances in the short term or to use fiscal policy to promote recovery. Those worried about the short-run contractionary effects on the economy call the first option “austerity”; those concerned about long-term sustainability and moral hazard call it “discipline.”
Either way, the debate is akin to asking whether it is better for a driver to turn left or right; depending on where the car is, either choice might be appropriate. Likewise, when an economy is booming, the government should run a budget surplus; when it is in recession, the government should run a deficit.
To be sure, Keynesian macroeconomic policy lost its luster mainly because politicians often failed to time countercyclical fiscal policy – “fine tuning” – properly. Sometimes fiscal stimulus would kick in after the recession was already over. But that is no reason to follow a destabilizing pro-cyclical fiscal policy, which piles spending increases and tax cuts on top of booms, and cuts spending and raises taxes in response to downturns.