Using Fiscal Policy to Fight Recession, Unemployment, and Inflation
We need to emphasize that fiscal policy is the use of government spending and tax policy to alter the economy. Fiscal policy does not include all spending (such as the increase in spending that accompanies a war).
Graphically, we see that fiscal policy, whether through change in spending or taxes, shifts the aggregate demand rightward in the case of expansionary fiscal policy and leftward in the case of contractionary fiscal policy. Figure 16.10 illustrates the process by using an aggregate demand/aggregate supply diagram in a growing economy. The original equilibrium occurs at E0, the intersection of aggregate demand curve AD0 and aggregate supply curve AS0, at an output level of 200 and a price level of 90.
One year later, aggregate supply has shifted to the right to AS1 in the process of long-term economic growth, and aggregate demand has also shifted to the right to AD1, keeping the economy operating at the new level of potential GDP. The new equilibrium (E1) is an output level of 206 and a price level of 92. One more year later, aggregate supply has again shifted to the right, now to AS2, and aggregate demand shifts right as well to AD2. Now the equilibrium is E2, with an output level of 212 and a price level of 94. In short, the figure shows an economy that is growing steadily year to year, producing at its potential GDP each year, with only small inflationary increases in the price level.
Aggregate demand and aggregate supply do not always move neatly together. Aggregate demand may fail to increase along with aggregate supply, or aggregate demand may even shift left, for a number of possible reasons: households become hesitant about consuming; firms decide against investing as much; or perhaps the demand from other countries for exports diminishes. For example, investment by private firms in physical capital in the U.S. economy boomed during the late 1990s, rising from 14.1% of GDP in 1993 to 17.2% in 2000, before falling back to 15.2% by 2002. Conversely, if shifts in aggregate demand run ahead of increases in aggregate supply, inflationary increases in the price level will result. Business cycles of recession and recovery are the consequence of shifts in aggregate supply and aggregate demand.
Monetary Policy and Bank Regulation shows us that a central bank can use its powers over the banking system to engage in countercyclical—or “against the business cycle”—actions. If recession threatens, the central bank uses an expansionary monetary policy to increase the supply of money, increase the quantity of loans, reduce interest rates, and shift aggregate demand to the right. If inflation threatens, the central bank uses contractionary monetary policy to reduce the supply of money, reduce the quantity of loans, raise interest rates, and shift aggregate demand to the left. Fiscal policy is another macroeconomic policy tool for adjusting aggregate demand by using either government spending or taxation policy.
Expansionary Fiscal Policy
Expansionary fiscal policy increases the level of aggregate demand, through either increases in government spending or reductions in taxes. Expansionary policy can do this by (1) increasing consumption by raising disposable income through cuts in personal income taxes or payroll taxes; (2) increasing investments by raising after-tax profits through cuts in business taxes; and (3) increasing government purchases through increased spending by the federal government on final goods and services and raising federal grants to state and local governments to increase their expenditures on final goods and services. Contractionary fiscal policy does the reverse: it decreases the level of aggregate demand by decreasing consumption, decreasing investments, and decreasing government spending, either through cuts in government spending or increases in taxes. The aggregate demand/aggregate supply model is useful in judging whether expansionary or contractionary fiscal policy is appropriate.
Consider first the situation in Figure 16.11, which is similar to the U.S. economy during the recession in 2008–2009. The intersection of aggregate demand (AD0) and aggregate supply (AS0) is occurring below the level of potential GDP. At the equilibrium (E0), a recession occurs and unemployment rises. (The figure uses the upward-sloping AS curve associated with a Keynesian economic approach, rather than the vertical AS curve associated with a neoclassical approach, because our focus is on macroeconomic policy over the short-run business cycle rather than over the long run.) In this case, expansionary fiscal policy using tax cuts or increases in government spending can shift aggregate demand to AD1, closer to the full-employment level of output. In addition, the price level would rise back to the level P1 associated with potential GDP.
Should the government use tax cuts or spending increases, or a mix of the two, to carry out expansionary fiscal policy? After the Great Recession of 2008–2009 (which started, actually, in very late 2007), U.S. government spending rose from 19.6% of GDP in 2007 to 24.6% in 2009, while tax revenues declined from 18.5% of GDP in 2007 to 14.8% in 2009. The choice between whether to use tax or spending tools often has a political tinge. As a general statement, conservatives and Republicans prefer to see expansionary fiscal policy carried out by tax cuts, while liberals and Democrats prefer that expansionary fiscal policy be implemented through spending increases. The Obama administration and Congress passed an $830 billion expansionary policy in early 2009 involving both tax cuts and increases in government spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office. However, state and local governments, whose budgets were also hard hit by the recession, began cutting their spending—a policy that offset federal expansionary policy.
The conflict over which policy tool to use can be frustrating to those who want to categorize economics as “liberal” or “conservative,” or who want to use economic models to argue against their political opponents. But the AD–AS model can be used both by advocates of smaller government, who seek to reduce taxes and government spending, and by advocates of bigger government, who seek to raise taxes and government spending. Economic studies of specific taxing and spending programs can help to inform decisions about whether taxes or spending should be changed, and in what ways. Ultimately, decisions about whether to use tax or spending mechanisms to implement macroeconomic policy is, in part, a political decision rather than a purely economic one.
Contractionary Fiscal Policy
Fiscal policy can also contribute to pushing aggregate demand beyond potential GDP in a way that leads to inflation. As shown in Figure 16.12, a very large budget deficit pushes up aggregate demand, so that the intersection of aggregate demand (AD0) and aggregate supply (AS0) occurs at equilibrium E0, which is an output level above potential GDP. This is sometimes known as an “overheating economy” where demand is so high that there is upward pressure on wages and prices, causing inflation. In this situation, contractionary fiscal policy involving federal spending cuts or tax increases can help to reduce the upward pressure on the price level by shifting aggregate demand to the left, to AD1, and causing the new equilibrium E1 to be at potential GDP.
Again, the AD–AS model does not dictate how this contractionary fiscal policy is to be carried out. Some may prefer spending cuts; others may prefer tax increases; still others may say that it depends on the specific situation. The model only argues that, in this situation, aggregate demand needs to be reduced.
Self Check: Expansionary and Contractionary Fiscal Policies
Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.
You’ll have more success on the Self Check if you’ve completed the Reading in this section.
Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.