Why the argument that we can’t have short-term stimulus without long-term deficit reduction doesn’t hold up.
Let’s say there are two obvious things I should be doing to make my life better: being healthier now and saving more for retirement. We’ll say that it is hard to disagree with these two items, and that these are obviously smart moves for me to make.
Given that they are the smart things to do, I should try to do both at the same time, right? I shouldn’t let my failure to do one prevent my ability to do the other. It would be weird for me to tell my doctor I was going keep on eating multiple triple bacon cheeseburgers because I wasn’t maxing out my 401(k) contributions; my accountant would be puzzled if I told him I wasn’t going to invest my savings for retirement until I dropped some weight. There could be convoluted situations in which I could only do both — no point in saving for retirement if I’m not going to make it there — but it would have to be backed up by undeniable facts, since it would involve not trying to do something I believed was a good idea.
Yet this is how elite, center-leaning policy intellectuals think on the issue of deficits. The Very Serious People, if you will. They think we need to increase the size of the short-term deficit. They also think that we need to reduce the size of the long-term deficit. But they think that these two actions can only move together and, like I told my doctor and accountant, if one doesn’t happen the other can’t either. This is often known as the two-deficits problem, which I last talked about in The Nation.
Take the Domenici-Rivlin Restoring America’s Future plan. In the overview it states, “First, we must recover from the deep recession that has thrown millions out of work… Second, we must take immediate steps to reduce the unsustainable debt … These two challenges must be addressed at the same time, not sequentially.” (The deficit hawk Comeback America Initiative report is similiar, with $500 billion dollars in infrastructure over two years tied to focusing on long-term deficit reduction.)
It’s never very clear why these two must move together. The more aggressive argument is that the market will panic and raise interest rates if the long-term deficit is not addressed, immediately canceling out the stimulus. The more widely used version is that stimulus now would increase the longer-term debt, hence making the longer-term challenges worse and the crises and challenges occur more quickly.
This is why something like Delong-Summers paper “Fiscal Policy in a Depressed Economy” is so important. It finds that “under what we defend as plausible assumptions of temporary expansionary fiscal policies may well reduce long-run debt-financing burdens.”
As Seth Ackerman noted, there’s something gleeful in seeing Delong-Summers, in their focus on hysteresis in Europe, dismiss the “principal alternative theory was that high unemployment in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s” as “principally a supply-side phenomenon…and rigid labor market institutions… See Krugman (1994)” in a footnote (!), as if that’s not a major reversal or anything. But the argument that, from the debt-to-GDP point of view, fiscal stimulus in a depressed economy is a smart investment by itself, is important for countering the idea that it must be linked to something else in the long term.
Here’s where Peter Orszag’s “Barbell Approach Only Way to Lift Heavy Economy” enters the picture. Orszag argues that that Delong-Summers approach is flawed because it ignores this two-deficits (or what he calls the barbell) problem, which argues that even if short-term stimulus is a good idea it should be linked to long-term deficit reduction. To use the opening analogy, even if getting healthy is a good idea, we should only try it if we save more for retirement. Why is this?
But these stimulus-only proposals, by not lifting the other side of the barbell, are incomplete for three reasons: First, substantial stimulus-only proposals have no chance of being enacted. Second, even if they could be, they would accelerate the date at which we again run up against the debt limit — and their proponents have no strategy for dealing with that impediment. Finally, even if the debt limit were simply assumed away (an ivory-tower approach that might prove appealing to some stimulus-only proponents), the impact of any stimulus would be stronger, and our international credibility enhanced, if it were combined with specific, but delayed, actions to reduce the deficit.