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The Politics of Pay-Fors: A Simple Framework

Summary:
One of the central economic debates among progressives is over the necessity or desirability of accompanying new public spending with similar-sized tax increases. In recent years perhaps the most visible, or at least the most heated, instances of this debate have been around Modern Mone(tar)y Theory. But the debate itself is broader and older. These debates are in part about economic questions — both what the constraints on issuing new public-sector liabilities (“borrowing”) are in principle, and of how close we are to those constraints in practice. But a second and arguably more important dimension of the debate is political: In a public or legislative debate, what are the advantages and disadvantages of linking proposals for public spending with proposals for increased taxes? I think

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One of the central economic debates among progressives is over the necessity or desirability of accompanying new public spending with similar-sized tax increases. In recent years perhaps the most visible, or at least the most heated, instances of this debate have been around Modern Mone(tar)y Theory. But the debate itself is broader and older.

These debates are in part about economic questions — both what the constraints on issuing new public-sector liabilities (“borrowing”) are in principle, and of how close we are to those constraints in practice. But a second and arguably more important dimension of the debate is political: In a public or legislative debate, what are the advantages and disadvantages of linking proposals for public spending with proposals for increased taxes?

I think it’s useful to think of this second question in terms of the grid of possibilities below. Some of this may seem obvious, but I find it’s sometimes helpful to spell out even obvious points.

The Politics of Pay-Fors: A Simple FrameworkOn the horizontal axis we have spending relative to the baseline, from less to more. This axis also describes the political priority of the new spending — if there is to be only a small increase in spending, it will presumably go to items that are deemed highest value by the budget authorities, while greater overall spending allows for lower value items. Assuming that we think the priorities of the political process at least somewhat reflect social value, points at the far right can be thought of as socially useless or “waste”.

The vertical axis shows tax increases relative to the baseline, from less to more. Again, this also has a qualitative dimension. Modest tax increases can be targeted, for instance on higher incomes or on socially undesirable products or activities (Pigouvian taxes). But in order to raise large amounts of revenue, broad-based taxes are needed.1 The upper left corner, then, represents the status quo; the diagonal line coming down from it represents proposals that are fully paid for, that leave the expected fiscal balanced unchanged. Points above the line represent shifts toward fiscal surpluses, while points below it represent shifts toward deficit. If you think that spending to some degree pays for itself through Keynesian and/or supply side effects, you can imagine the slope of the diagonal line being flatter.

Remember: This is just a conceptual diagram, useful for organizing the debate. It doesn’t imply any substantive claims about what particular forms of spending will be prioritized by the political process, or what particular taxes should be seen as desirable for their own sake. And “status quo” here just means the null, what will happen if nothing happens, which might or might not be a continuation of current spending and tax policies.

Since I want to focus on the political question here, let’s stipulate that the budget balance itself isn’t economically important. So we can assess our preferred spending and tax proposals independently. We will want whatever progressive and Pigouvian taxes are desirable for their own sake, indicated by the blue bar on the left of the figure. And we will want whatever level of spending is required to meet urgent social needs, indicated by the blue bar at the top of the figure. Both of these will be modified based on current macroeconomic conditions — unemployment calls for more spending and/or lower taxes, while sustained inflation calls for less spending and/or higher taxes. (That’s why they are ranges rathe than points.) Thus the social optimal mix of spending and taxes will fall in the region marked with blue dotted lines.2

The question is now, what is the effect of linking spending changes with revenue changes — of requiring that new spending be “paid for”?

In general, it is to shift the policy debate away from the upper right and toward the lower left. This is shown by the various red arrows in the the figure, all of which represent trajectories from budget deficit toward surplus. The different arrows reflect the extent to which the pay-for requirement is  felt more strongly on the expenditure side (the flatter arrow) or the tax side (the steeper arrow), and what kinds of proposals you think are likely to be put forward in the absence of such a requirement.

Independently of where you think the socially optimal region is located, your judgement about the desirability of pay-for requirements will depend on what mix of spending cuts and revenue increases you think will result from it; what outcome you expect in its absence; and how you prioritize getting close to the optimum on the expenditure side versus on the revenue side. The argument of this post is that where people fall on paying for public spending depends more on these political judgments than on disagreements about economics. 

Here are some cases, corresponding to the arrows in the picture:

Arrow a reflects a view that the main effect of pay-for requirements is to impose priorities on spending. In this view, the normal outcome of the legislative process when large spending increases are proposed is to increase them even further, with items of limited or negative social value. So the main effect of fiscal constraints, in this view, is to force the budget authorities to focus on higher-priority items.3 This is reflected in an arrow that moves mainly to the left out of the “waste” region, toward the social optimum. This, I think, captures the view of the Obama team in 2009 and of prominent Obamanauts still in public life.

Arrow b is even flatter, and starts further to the left. This reflects a similar judgement that the main effect of pay-for requirements is to limit spending, but also that the bias of the political system is toward too little spending and that tax increases are politically very difficult. In this view, the main effect of a pay-for requirement is to make it likely that socially valuable spending will not take place. This is the view of most people in the progressive macro space today, as far as I can tell. Here is a version of this argument from some of my colleagues at the Roosevelt Institute.

Arrow c is steeper, moving directly toward the balanced-budget line. This reflects a judgement that a pay-for requirement will result in a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. Unlike the first two lines, which clearly move toward and away from the social optimum, respectively, this one is ambiguous on that point. This arrow, I think, captures where a lot of people around the Biden administration are right now. There is a range of views about what kind of fiscal position is appropriate in current conditions, and no significant commitment to balanced budgets as such. But there is, or has been, a strong view that it’s not possible to pass further large deficit-financed spending increases through Congress, in which case it’s important to preemptively move the debate (in the terms of the diagram) towards the diagonal. There’s also a view — reflected in the position of the arrow — that even if a pay-for requirement means the loss of some useful spending, the revenue raisers it encourages may be socially desirable for their own sake.

Finally, arrow d is even steeper, and starts higher up. This reflects a judgement that the main effect of pay-for requirements is to create pressure for higher taxes, and that this is a good thing. In this view, the main effect of “Keynesian” deficit financing is to allow the rich to escape the burden of paying for public spending, spending which will take place one way or the other. This is a minority but not fringe position on the left. It’s especially pronounced among MMT critics who attribute the school’s prominence to the fact that rich people welcome an excuse not to be taxed.

Broadly then, we have views that pay-for requirements are: politically helpful, because they reduce wasteful spending; politically harmful, because they reduce valuable spending; an unfortunate necessity, because deficit increases are politically harder than raising revenue; and politically helpful, because they motivate taxes on the rich. 

Again, all of this may seem a bit obvious. But I think it’s worth spelling out, because there’s some avoidable confusion that comes from treating as economic disagreements what are actually differing judgements about the contours of political possibility.

Between the two “left” positions (b and d), for example, you could put it this way: If we’re looking at a big expansion of public spending, what’s the effect of adding a requirement that it be paid for? Relative to the case without the requirement, it is more likely that we will get both the spending and a progressive tax increase. But it is also more likely that we won’t get the spending at all, or get less of it. How you trade these off against each other depends not just on your assessment of the relative likelihood, but also the relative importance you assign to the two goals. If you think that income inequality and the political power of the rich is the existential problem of our times, and progressive taxes are the only tool to rein it in, it’s not unreasonable to, in effect, hold public spending hostage in order to win them. If you think that other problems or more important, or there are other tools, you’ll feel differently.

My purpose here is not to say that any of these views is right or wrong. I’m just trying to clarify what’s being argued about. 

That said, here is the news story that prompted me to finally sit down and write this post. It’s a Financial Times article with the eye-catching headline “‘A Humiliating Climbdown’”:

This week Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat and the leading tax writer in the House of Representatives, released his plan for $2.9tn in tax increases to fund Biden’s $3.5tn package… Neal’s proposal includes an increase in the top individual income tax rate from 37 per cent to 39.6 per cent, yet shies away from more aggressively targeting taxes on capital gains, the source of a huge share of wealth for millionaires and billionaires.

… The changes to Biden’s tax plan proposed in the House highlight the extent of the backlash among Democratic donors, lobbyists and constituents who have balked at the president’s efforts to tax wealth — especially capital gains.

The point is, in this case at least, the link to tax increases seems to be making House Dems less likely to vote for something that includes them, not more likely. And this is especially true for the progressive income and wealth taxes that are central to the progressive case for pay-fors.

Even more than to the intra-left debate I just mentioned, the article speaks to the pragmatic mainstream case for pay-fors. One sometimes hears people say, ok, you’re right, there isn’t any real economic argument for matching spending and revenue. With interest rates on public debt still well below anything seen in US history before 2020, it’s hard to argue with a straight face that financial markets limit the US government’s ability to borrow. But, they say, there are still political constraints — at some point Congress is not going to pass more spending financed with debt.

In the view in which pay-fors are politically helpful, the space of political possibility slopes downward from upper right to lower left. The less borrowing you ask people to vote for, the easier it is. By committing to fully paying for all new spending, you are more likely to end up with a package that can make it past all the various veto points. But things like the FT article suggests that this isn’t the case — that the gradient of political feasibility instead slopes from bottom to top. The less revenue you need, the easier. 

In Arjun Jayadev’s and my piece on MMT and mainstream economics, we argued that differences between the two schools mostly “involve practical judgement about policy execution rather than any fundamental difference about how policy works in principle.” We continued:

We suspect that most in the mainstream macroeconomic policy world reject a functional finance rule not because they believe that it would not work if followed, but because they believe it would not in fact be followed. There is a widely shared though not always explicitly theorized presumption in mainstream policy discussions that macroeconomic policy in democratic polities suffers from a systematic bias toward deficits and inflation… Conversely, many MMT advocates believe that policymakers operating under a conventional assignment consistently err in the direction of accepting unemployment higher than required to maintain stable prices. … These judgements about the most likely direction of policy error are quite important for evaluating alternative policy rules, but they do not depend on any difference in strictly economic analysis.

That still seems right to me.

So which, then, seems more plausible? “Congress can’t pass something that will raise the deficit, so we need to find revenues to offset our spending,” versus “Congress hates raising taxes, so we need to be ready to accept higher deficits if we want higher spending.” 

Or again, which seems more plausible? “In the absence of some kind of financial constraint — even an artificial or imaginary one — we’ll see a wave of wasteful or even socially harmful spending,” versus, “Even in the absence of financial constraints, any expansion of the public sector has to overcome all kinds of hurdles and resistance.”  

I am arguing against my own interest as an economist here. But I suspect that clarifying what we believe — and why — on these kinds of questions would at this point advance the conversation around paying for public spending more than more narrowly economic analysis would.

  1. This relationship is even stronger if one thinks of taxes as a tool for controlling inflation rather than raising revenue. Taxes on the highest incomes and wealth may be very desirable from a distributional standpoint, but will have limited effect on demand. Conversely, consumption taxes are regressive but very effective at controlling demand.
  2. The fact that I have drawn the region above the balanced-budget line, and wider than it is long, reflects my Keynesian priors that stagnation is a bigger danger than overheating, and that spending changes affect demand reliably than tax changes. You could of course draw it differently without affecting the logic of the argument.
  3. Some years ago the FT ran a review of a book about the surveillance state, which I unfortunately cannot find, that concluded that limits on surveillance were not really necessary since market-imposed constraints on government spending would limit anything really abusive.
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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