Is A Fiscal Union Expensive For Its Rich Members?

Josh Barro writing for The New York Times claims that a fiscal union for the Euro Area will be an enourmous expense for its rich members.

He cites the example of Connecticut:

But the American fiscal union is very expensive for rich states. According to calculations by The Economist, Connecticut paid out 5 percent of its gross domestic product in net fiscal transfers to other states between 1990 and 2009; that is, its tax payments exceeded its receipt of government services by that amount. This is typical for rich states: They pay a disproportionate share of income and payroll taxes, while government services are disproportionately collected in states where people are poor or old or infirm.

This is blatantly wrong. It assumes that output of individual regions and the whole of the the Euro Area will roughly be the same with or without a fiscal union. It ignores the notion that each region may be better off because a supranational fiscal authority will have powers to raise output via expenditure and taxes which individual regions cannot achieve.

In his 1997 article Curried EMU — The Meal That Fails To Nourish for Observer, Wynne Godley made this point well (link):

A useful comparison can be made with the US. Americans often point that if would make no sense if each US state had its own currency, so what is all the fuss about? But the question should be asked the other way round. How would the US make out with no President, no Congress, no federal budget, and no federal institutions apart from the ‘Fed’ itself, plus a powerful central bureaucracy?

The analogy is useful because the United States does so obviously need a federal budget as well as a federal bank, and the activities of the two authorities have to be co-ordinated.  If there is a recession, remedial (expansionary) fiscal policy at the federal level is the only proper response; it is inconceivable that corrective action could be left to component states, which have neither the perspective nor the co-ordinating machinery to do the job. If there is a federal budget there must obviously be a legislative and executive apparatus that executes it and is democratically accountable for it. Moreover, the need for federal institutions extends far beyond economic affairs.

[emphasis added]

So it is incorrect to claim that a fiscal union is highly expensive for rich states. If there is a fiscal union, while rich regions will receive less from the supranational fiscal authority than what they pay in taxes, there’ll be higher output and income than otherwise simply because there is a powerful institution which raises output of each region. Rich nations will be able to net export more than otherwise, for example, compensating for transfers in absolute terms.

Analysis such as by Josh Barro are erroneous usually because of implicit assumptions made such as an aggregate production function, which implies a neutral role for fiscal policy. This can easily be verified: his assumption is that output is determined by other factors, not fiscal policy (because he doesn’t say so) and hence the role of a central government is one which just transfers from rich regions to poor, instead of having any impact on the output of the whole region. Silly.

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