The Illogical Golden Rule

There’s a nice article by Wynne Godley written in 2005 for The Guardian on the fiscal policy golden rule. There are two things wrong about the golden rule. The first is to think that capital expenditure is somehow superior to current expenditure. This is the reason one frequently hears “wonks” stressing on government infrastructure spending. The other is to ignore changes in private sector behaviour and foreign trade performance.

From the article:

Criticism of the fiscal policy regime has focused too much on whether Gordon Brown will break his self-imposed Golden Rule and not enough on whether the rule is acceptable. The Golden Rule states that the balance between receipts and current expenditure should be zero over the cycle, exempting public investment, which does not ‘count’ for the purpose of making this calculation.

A relatively minor objection to this arrangement is that there exists no relevant difference between, say, capital expenditure on school building and current expenditure on teachers. Both are equally necessary for education and both absorb resources (pound for pound) to roughly the same extent.

More fundamentally, the budget balance is equal to the difference between the government’s receipts and outlays, but it is also equal, by definition, to the sum of private net saving (personal and corporate combined) plus the balance of payments deficit.

If the private sector decides to save more, the government has no choice but to allow its budget deficit to rise unless it is prepared to sacrifice full employment; the same thing applies if uncorrected trends in foreign trade cause the balance of payments deficit to increase.

A sensible target for the budget balance cannot be set unless it is integrated into a view about what will happen to autonomous trends and propensities in private net saving and foreign trade. Moreover, as those trends and propensities change, it will never be possible to determine viable targets for the deficit that are fixed through time such as, for instance, that it should never exceed some number such as 3 per cent of GDP or that it should on average be zero.

Coming back to the medium-term future of the British economy: if, as seems quite possible, there is now a growth recession initiated by a fall in personal expenditure, the government will have no option but to allow the deficit to rise well beyond what the Golden Rule permits. The authorities will look ridiculous if they move the goalposts again, so the rule will have to be jettisoned. I don’t think it will be long before discretionary fiscal policy, once discredited by a few serious errors in the Sixties and Seventies, has to be rehabilitated.

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