The Soon-To-Be Conventional Wisdom: “Fiscal Policy Is Not So Good”

Donald Trump is the President-elect of the United States. It hardly needs to be mentioned how bad his campaign was. Glenn Greenwald rightly called him an abusive, misogynistic, bigoted, scary, lawless authoritarian.

However on the economic scale, Trump’s plans seem to be to the left of Hillary Clinton. Trump wants to pump the prime, meaning do a fiscal expansion and also put tariffs.

Trump is yet to take his office, but the narrative change about fiscal policy has already started. The important thing to remember is that this is done by economists who might otherwise not object to it – at least the fiscal stimulus.

In other words, just to oppose Trump, economists are on the path to build a conventional wisdom that fiscal policy is neutral or impotent or even destructive if it’s expansionary (as in higher expenditure and/or cuts in tax rates).

Example: Lawrence Summers’ article A Badly Designed US stimulus Will Only Hurt The Working Class for Financial Times. While obviously unable to deny the importance of fiscal expansion (because it works), Summers says:

I am optimistic regarding the efficacy of fiscal expansion. But any responsible economist has to recognise that, past a point, it can lead to some combination of excessive foreign borrowing, inflation and even financial crisis. As Dornbusch showed, in emerging markets this can happen quite quickly. In the US the process would take longer.

Moreover, he also goes on to argue that China is not gaining unfair advantage by keeping its exchange rate at a highly devalued level. Notice the change in tone in Summers’ language. From writing about how the constraints are far, Summers is now saying that fiscal policy is not that good. Surely he’s using a language to hedge himself —as any economist should do—but he’s clearly not saying that, “Fiscal expansion will be good for the US economy. Trump should rather design taxes to be progressive” but instead, giving innuendos that fiscal policy is not that good.

Even a non-progressive system of taxation or even tax cuts for the wealthy can be expansionary. It raises inequality but the size of the pie is still rising. To me it’s still better than a neutral fiscal stance. But Summers’ language is such that it is worse.

Obviously no economist will jump overnight to shifting his/her position to saying, “fiscal policy is impotent or worse expansion destructive”, after the elections, from a position, “fiscal policy should be expansionary” before the elections. So conventional wisdom will be created slowly over the next few months – slowly manufacturing constent, borrowing the phrase from Noam Chomsky.

Is my reading of Summers wrong? Time will tell! But why didn’t Summers ever complain about the non-progressive system of taxation earlier?

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