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The American Rescue Plan as Economic Theory

Summary:
So, this happened. Some people are frustrated about the surrender on the minimum wage, the scaled-back unemployment insurance, the child tax credit that should have been a universal child allowance, the fact that most of the good things phase out over the next year or two. On the other side are those who see it as a decisive break with neoliberalism. Both the Clinton and Obama administrations entered office with ambitious spending plans, only to abandon or sharply curtail them (respectively), and instead embrace a politics of austerity and deficit reduction. From this point of view, the fact that the Biden administration not only managed to push through an increase in public spending of close to 10 percent of GDP, but did so without any promises of longer-term deficit reduction,

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So, this happened.

Some people are frustrated about the surrender on the minimum wage, the scaled-back unemployment insurance, the child tax credit that should have been a universal child allowance, the fact that most of the good things phase out over the next year or two.

On the other side are those who see it as a decisive break with neoliberalism. Both the Clinton and Obama administrations entered office with ambitious spending plans, only to abandon or sharply curtail them (respectively), and instead embrace a politics of austerity and deficit reduction. From this point of view, the fact that the Biden administration not only managed to push through an increase in public spending of close to 10 percent of GDP, but did so without any promises of longer-term deficit reduction, suggests a fundamental shift.

Personally, I share this second perspective. I am less surprised by the ways in which the bill was trimmed back, than by the extent that it breaks with the Clinton-Obama model. The fact that people like Lawrence Summers have been ignored in favor of progressives like Heather Boushey and Jared Bernstein, and deficit hawks like the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget have been left screeching irrelevantly from the sidelines, isn’t just gratifying as spectacle. It suggests a big move in the center of gravity of economic policy debates.

It really does seem that on the big macroeconomic questions, our side is winning. 

To be clear, the bill did not pass because some economists out-argued other economists. It was a political outcome that was driven by political conditions and political work. Most obviously, it’s hard to imagine this Biden administration without the two Sanders campaigns that preceded it. (In the president’s speech after signing the bill, Bernie was literally the first person credited.) If it’s true, as reported, that Schumer kept expanded unemployment benefits in the bill only by threatening Manchin that the thing would not pass the House without them, then the Squad also deserves a lot of credit.

Still, from my parochial corner, it’s interesting to think about the economic theory implied by the bill. Implicitly, it seems to me, it represents a big break with prevailing orthodoxy.

Over the past generation, macroeconomic policy discussions have been based on a kind of textbook catechism that goes something like this: Over the long run, potential GDP grows at a rate based on supply-side factors — demographics, technological growth, and whatever institutions we think influence investment and labor force participation. Over the short run, there are random events that can cause actual spending to deviate from potential, which will be reflected in a higher or lower rate of inflation. These fluctuations are more or less symmetrical, both in frequency and in cost. The job of the central bank is to adjust interest rates to minimize the size of these deviations. The best short-term measure of how close the economy is to potential is the unemployment rate; at any given moment, there’s a minimum level of unemployment consistent with price stability. Smoothing out these fluctuations has real short run benefits, but no effects on long-term growth. The government budget balance, meanwhile, should not be used to stabilize demand, but rather should be kept at a level that ensures a stable or falling debt ratio; large fiscal deficits may be very costly. Finally, while it may be necessary to stabilize overall spending in the economy, this should be done in a way that minimizes “distortions” of the pattern of economic activity and, in particular, does not reduce the incentive to work.

Policy debates — though not textbooks — have been moving away from this catechism for a while. Jason Furman’s New View of Fiscal Policy is an example I often point to; you can also see it in many statements from Powell and other Fed officials, as I’ve discussed here and here. But these are, obviously, just statements. The size and design of ARPA is a more consequential rejection of this catechism. Without being described as such, it’s a decisive recognition of half a dozen points that those of us on the left side of the macroeconomic debate have been making for years.

1. The official unemployment rate is an unreliable guide to the true degree of labor market slack, all the time and especially in downturns. Most of the movement into and out of employment is from people who are not officially counted as unemployed. To assess labor market slack, we should also look at the employment-population ratio, and also at more direct measures of workers’ bargaining power like quit rates and wage increases. By these measures, the US pre-pandemic was still well short of the late 1990s.  More broadly, there is not a well defined labor force, but a  smooth gradient of proximity to employment. The short-term unemployed are the closest, followed by the longer-term unemployed, employed people seeking additional work, discouraged workers, workers disfavored by employers due to ethnicity, credentials, etc. Beyond this are people whose claim on the social product is not normally exercised by paid labor – retired people, the disabled, full-time caregivers – but might come to be if labor market conditions were sufficiently favorable. 

2. The balance of macroeconomic risks is not symmetrical. We don’t live in an economy that fluctuates around a long-term growth path, but one that periodically falls into recessions or depressions. These downturns are a distinct category of events, not a random “shock” to production or desired spending. Economic activity is a complex coordination problem; there are many ways it can break down or be interrupted that result in a fall in  spending, but not really any way it can abruptly accelerate. (There are no “positive shocks” for the same reason that there are lots of poisons but no wonder drugs.) It’s easy to imagine real-world developments that could causes businesses to abruptly cut back their investment plans, but not that would cause them to suddenly and unexpectedly scale them up. In real economies, demand shortfalls are much more frequent, persistent and damaging than is overheating. And to the extent the latter is a problem, it is much easier to interrupt the flow of spending than to restart it. 

3. The existence of hysteresis is one important reason that demand shortfalls are much more costly than overshooting. Overheating may have short-term costs in higher inflation, inflated asset prices and a redistribution of income toward relatively scarce factors (e.g. urban land), but it also is associated with a long-term increase in productive capacity — one that may eventually close the inflationary gap on its own. Shortfalls on the other hand lead to a reduction in potential output, and so may become self-perpetuating as potential GDP declines. Hysteresis also means that we cannot count on the economy returning to its long-term trend on its own — big falls in demand may persist indefinitely unless they are offset by some large exogenous boost to demand. Which in turn means that standard estimates of potential output understate the capacity of output to respond to higher spending. 

4. A full employment or high pressure economy has benefits that go well beyond the direct benefits of higher incomes and output. Hysteresis is part of this — full employment is a spur to innovation and faster productivity growth. But there are also major implications for the distribution of income. Those who are most disadvantaged in the labor market, are the ones who benefit most from very low unemployment. The World War II experience, and the subsequent evolution of the racial wage gap, suggests that historically, sustained tight labor markets have been the most powerful force for closing the gap between black and white wages.

I’m not sure how much people in the administration and Congress were actually making arguments like these in framing the bill. But even if they weren’t explicitly argued for, some mix of them logically follows from the willingness to pass something so much larger than the conventional estimates of the output gap would imply. Some mix of them also must underly the repeated statements that we can’t do too much, only too little, and from the recognition that the costs of an inadequate stimulus in 2009 were not just lower output for a year or two, but  an extended period of slow growth and stagnant wages. When Schumer says that in 2009, “we cut back on the stimulus dramatically and we stayed in recession for five years,” he is espousing a model of hysteresis, even if he doesn’t use the word.

On other points, there’s a more direct link between the debate over the bill and the shift in economic vision it implies.

5. Public debt doesn’t matter. Maybe I missed it, but as far as I can tell, in the push for the Rescue Plan neither the administration nor the Congressional leadership made even a gesture toward deficit reduction, not even a pro forma comment that it might be desirable in principle or in the indefinite long run. The word “deficit” does not seem to have occurred in any official statement from the president since early February — and even then it was in the form of “it’s a mistake to worry about the deficit.” Your guide to being a savvy political insider suggests appropriate “yes, buts” to the Rescue Plan — too much demand will cause inflation, or alternatively that demand will collapse once the spending ends. Nothing about the debt. Things may change, of course, but at the moment it’s astonishing how completely we have won on this one.

The American Rescue Plan as Economic Theory

6. Work incentives don’t matter. For decades, welfare measures in the US have been carefully tailored to ensure that they did not broaden people’s choices other than wage labor. The commitment to maintaining work incentives was strong enough to justify effectively cutting off all cash assistance to families without anyone in paid employment — which of course includes the poorest.  The flat $600 pandemic unemployment insurance was a radical departure from this — reaching everyone who was out of work took priority over ensuring that no one was left better off than they would be with a job. The empirical evidence that this had no effect on employment is informative about income-support programs in general. Obviously $300 is less than $600, but it maintains the priority of broad eligibility. Similarly, by allowing families with no wages to get the full benefit, making the child tax credit full refundable effectively abandons work incentives as a design principle (even if it would be better at that point to just make it a universal child allowance.) As many people have pointed out, this is at least directionally 180 degrees from Clinton-era “welfare reform.” 

7.  Direct, visible spending is better than indirect spending or spending aimed at altering incentives. For anyone who remembers the debates over the ARRA at the start of the Obama administration, it’s striking how much the Rescue Plan leans into direct, visible payments to households. The plan to allow the child tax credit to be paid out in monthly installments may have some issues (and, again, would certainly work better if it were a flat allowance rather than a tax credit) but what’s interesting here is that it reflects a view that making the payments more salient is a good thing, not a bad thing.

In other areas, the conceptual framework hasn’t moved as far as I would have hoped, though we are making progress:

8. Means testing is costly and imprecise. As Claudia Sahm, Matt Bruenig and others have forcefully argued, there’s a big disconnect between the way means testing is discussed and the way it actually operates. When the merits of income-based spending are talked about in the abstract, it’s assumed that we know every household’s income and can assign spending precisely to different income groups. But when we come to implement it, we find that the main measure of income we use is based on tax records from one to two years earlier; there are many cases where the relevant income concept isn’t obvious; and the need to document income creates substantial costs and uncertainties for beneficiaries. Raising the income thresholds for things like the child tax credit is positive, but the other side of that is that once the threshold gets high enough it’s perverse to means-test at all: In order to exclude a relatively small number of high-income families you risk letting many lower-income families fall through the cracks. 

9. Weak demand is an ongoing problem, not just a short-term one. The most serious criticism of the ARPA is, I think, that so many of its provisions are set to phase out at specific dates when they could be permanent (the child tax credit) or linked to economic conditions (the unemployment insurance provisions). This suggests an implicit view that the problems of weak demand and income insecurity are specific to the coronavirus, rather than acute forms of a chronic condition. This isn’t intended as a criticism of those who crafted the bill — it may well be true that a permanent child tax credit couldn’t be passed under current conditions.

Still, the arguments in support of many of the provisions are not specific to the pandemic, and clearly imply that these measures ought to be permanent. If the child tax credit will cut child poverty by half, why would you want to do that for only one year? If a substantial part of the Rescue Plan should on the merits be permanent, that implies a permanently larger flow of public spending. The case needs to be made for this.

10. The public sector has capacities the private sector lacks. While Biden’s ARPA is a big step forward from Obama’s ARRA in a lot of ways, one thing they have in common is a relative lack of direct public provision. The public health measures are an exception, of course, and the aid to state and local governments — a welcome contrast with ARRA — is public spending at one remove, but the great majority of the money is going to boost private spending. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in this specific context, but it does suggest that, unlike the case with public debt, the institutional and ideological obstacles to shifting activities from for-profit to public provision are still formidable. 

My goal in listing these points isn’t, to be clear, to pass judgement on the bill one way or the other. Substantively, I do think it’s a big victory and a clear sign that elections matter. But my interest in this particular post is to think about what it says about how thinking about economic policy is shifting, and how those shifts might be projected back onto economic theory.

What would a macroeconomics look like that assumed that the economy was normally well short of supply constraints rather than at potential on average, or was agnostic about whether there was a meaningful level of potential output at all? What would it look like if we thought that demand-induced shifts in output are persistent, in both directions? Without the assumption of a supply-determined trend which output always converges to, it’s not clear there’s a meaningful long run at all. Can we have a macroeconomic theory that dispenses with that?

One idea that I find appealing is to think of supply as constraining the rate of growth of output, rather than its level. This would fit with some important observable facts about the world — not just that demand-induced changes in output are persistent, but also that employment tends to grow (and unemployment tends to fall) at a steady rate through expansions, rather than a quick recovery and then a return to long-run trend. The idea that there is a demographically fixed long-run employment-population ratio flies in the face of the major shifts of employment rates within demographic groups. A better story, it seems to me, is that there is a ceiling on the rate that employment can grow — say 1.5 or 2 percent a year — without any special adjustment process; faster growth requires drawing new people into the labor force, which typically requires faster wage growth and also involves various short run frictions. But, once strong growth does generate a larger labor force, there’s no reason for it to revert back to its old trend. 

More broadly, thinking of supply constraints in terms of growth rates rather than levels would let us stop thinking about the supply side in terms of an abstract non monetary economy “endowed” with certain productive resources, and start thinking about it in terms of the coordination capabilities of markets. I feel sure this is the right direction to go. But a proper model needs to be worked out before it is ready for the textbooks.

The textbook model of labor markets that we still teach justifies a focus on “flexibility”, where real wages are determined by on productivity and a stronger position for labor can only lead to higher inflation or unemployment. Instead, we need a model where the relative position of labor affects real as well as nominal wages, and  in which faster wage growth can be absorbed by faster productivity growth or a higher wage share as plausibly as by higher prices.

Or again, how do we think about public debt and deficits once we abandon the idea that a constant debt-GDP ratio is a hard constraint? One possibility is that we think the deficit matters, but debt does not, just as we now think think that the rate of inflation matters but the absolute price level does not.  To earlier generations of economists, the idea that prices could just rise forever without limit, would have seemed insane. But today we find it perfectly reasonable, as long as the rise over any given period is not too great. Perhaps we’ll come to the same view of public debt. To the extent that we do care about the debt ratio, we need to foreground the fact that its growth over time depends as much on interest, inflation and growth rates as it does on new borrowing. For the moment, the fact that interest rates are much lower than growth rates is enough to convince people past concerns were overblown. But to regard that as a permanent rather than contingent solution, we need, at least, to get rid of the idea of a natural rate of interest. 

In short, just as a generation of mainstream macroeconomic theory was retconned into an after-the-fact argument for an inflation-targeting central bank, what we need now is textbooks and theories that bring out, systematize and generalize the reasoning that justifies a great expansion of public spending, unconstrained by conventional estimates of potential output, public debt or the need to preserve labor-market incentives. The circumstances of the past year are obviously exceptional, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be made the basis of a general rule. For the past generation, macroeconomic theory has been largely an abstracted parable of the 1970s, when high interest rates (supposedly) saved us from inflation. With luck, perhaps the next generation will learn macroeconomics as a parable of our own time, when big deficits saved us from secular stagnation and the coronavirus.

About JW Mason
JW Mason
Assistant professor of economics at John Jay College - CUNY, and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. RT = Read This

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