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Strategic Analysis | April 2012

Back to Business as Usual? Or a Fiscal Boost?

Though the economy appears to be gradually gaining momentum, broad measures indicate that 14.5 percent of the US labor force is unemployed or underemployed, not much below the 16.2 percent rate reached a full year ago. In this new report in our Strategic Analysis series, we first discuss several slow-moving factors that make it difficult to achieve a full and sustainable economic recovery: the gradual redistribution of income toward the wealthiest 1 percent of households; a failure to fully stabilize and reregulate finance; serious fiscal troubles for state and local governments; and detritus from the financial crisis that remains on household and corporate balance sheets. These factors contribute to a situation in which employment has not risen fast enough since the (supposed) end of the recession to significantly increase the employment-population ratio. Meanwhile, public investment at all levels of government fell from roughly 3.7 percent of GDP in 2008 to 3.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011, helping to explain the weak economic picture.

For this report, we use the Levy Institute macro model to simulate the economy under the following three scenarios: (1) a private borrowing scenario, in which we find the appropriate amount of private sector net borrowing/lending to achieve the path of employment growth projected under current policies by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in a report characterized by excessive optimism and a bias toward deficit reduction; (2) a more plausible scenario, in which we assume that the federal government extends certain key tax cuts and that household borrowing increases at a more reasonable rate than in the previous scenario; and (3) a fiscal stimulus scenario, in which we simulate the effects of a fully “paid for” 1 percent increase in government investment.

The results show the importance of debt accumulation as a consideration in macro policymaking. The first scenario reproduces the CBO’s relatively optimistic employment projections, but our results indicate that this private-sector-led growth scenario quickly brings household and business debt to new all-time highs as percentages of GDP. We note that the CBO makes its projections using an orthodox model with several common, but fundamental, flaws. This makes possible the agency’s result that current policies will reduce the unemployment rate without a run-up in the private sector’s debt—“business as usual,” in the words of our report’s title.

The policies weighed in the second scenario do not perform much better, despite a looser fiscal stance. Finally, our third scenario illustrates that a small, tax-financed increase in government investment could lower the unemployment rate significantly—by about one-half of 1 percent. A stimulus package of this size might be within the realm of political possibility at this juncture. However, our results lead us to surmise that it would take a much more substantial fiscal stimulus to reduce unemployment to a level that most policymakers would regard as acceptable.

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