The fiscal policy debate often drives me crazy because far too many people focus on deficits.
The Keynesians argue that deficits are good for growth and this leads them to support more government spending.
The “austerity” crowd at places such as the International Monetary Fund, by contrast, argues that deficits are bad for growth and this leads them to support higher taxes.
Then you have institutions such as the Congressional Budget Office that want the worst of all worlds, supporting Keynesian spending in the short run while advocating higher taxes in the long run.
But since I don’t like higher spending or higher taxes, you can see why I want to pull my hair out.
With this in mind, I’m pleased that economists at the European Central Bank have released some new research on “Fiscal Composition and Long-Term Growth” which doesn’t reflexively assume that red ink is the key variable. Instead, they dispassionately look at how several fiscal policy variables impact economic performance.
Here is the general conclusion.
In this study we use a large panel of developed and developing countries for the period 1970-2008. …Specifically, we examine the following issues: the influence of which budgetary components have a stronger influence in affecting (positively or negatively) per capita GDP growth rates… Our evidence suggests that for the full sample…government expenditures appear with significant negative signs.
This makes sense. Whether financed by taxes or borrowing, excessive government expenditures hurt an economy by diverting resources from productive uses.
But not all government spending is created equal. Here are some of the specific findings.
In a nutshell, our results comprise notably: i) for the full sample revenues have no significant impact on growth whereas government expenditures have significant negative effects; ii) the same is true for the OECD sub-sample with the addition that total government revenues have a negative impact on growth; iii) taxes on income are less welcome for growth; iv) public wages, interest payments, subsidies and government consumption have a negative effect on output growth; v) expenditures on social security and welfare are less growth enhancing.
It’s noteworthy that government spending is negatively correlated with economic performance for both developing and advanced nations.
It’s also interesting that taxes on income are bad for growth everywhere, and overall revenue is bad for growth in advanced nations (both of these findings, incidentally, suggest that Obama’s class-warfare tax agenda is quite misguided).
The authors of the study also find that some forms of government spending are particularly harmful for growth. That also makes a lot of sense since I’ve explained in my video on the Rahn Curve that core public goods can be good for growth while other types of government spending undermine prosperity.
So what does all this mean? Simply stated, the fiscal problem in virtually all nations is not red ink. It’s big government. Large deficits aren’t desirable, to be sure, but they’re best understood as side effects of too much spending.