Monday, January 26, 2009

Tax cuts or higher public spending - which is better recession remedy?

This is often a confounding question that baffles governments and right thinking citizen alike. Arguments fly back and forth – tax cuts generate higher disposable income that goes to buy stuff and keeps demand buoyant. The opponents figure saved tax money just stays locked in. It doesn’t create jobs because businesses have put on hold large capex spends.

But then economic stimulus has its own detractors as well. Increased public spending on infrastructure, healthcare and education have long gestation periods. Committing the tax payer’s money to long term projects especially in recessionary times is not exactly sensible because there is no guarantee that businesses will continue to make profits in future years on which the government can expect to collect more taxes and keep those jobs in tact.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

The common knowledge is that tax cuts are not always better than public spending. Tax cuts work when a particular industry is marred by business cycle or has been subjected to excessive levies or if it contributes to larger public good, like say clean tech. In general otherwise, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

This suggests that public spending rather than tax cuts should be the core of any stimulus plan. But rather than accept that implication, conservatives take refuge in a nonsensical argument against public spending in general.

But I would rather weigh it on case to case, time to time than offer a sweeping solution.

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