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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.

Pro-cyclical fiscal policy worsens the dangers of overheating, inflation, and asset bubbles during booms, and exacerbates output and employment losses during recessions, thereby magnifying the swings of the business cycle. Yet many politicians in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the eurozone seem to live by it. They argue against fiscal discipline when the economy is strong, only to become deficit hawks when the economy is weak.