Associated Programs

Federal Budget Policy

Federal Budget Policy

The demographic shift resulting from the aging of the baby boomer generation presents a number of potential dilemmas for policymakers. Whether a shrinking working-age population can support its own dependents, in addition to retirees, has led to debates about the increasing size of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid budgets—now and in the future. Questions have been raised about whether these government programs can continue to function in the same manner, and achieve the same goals, as they do today. Will structural reform be necessary? Do we wish to provide the same, or a higher, level of support equally throughout the aging population? Should some, or all, benefits be “income tested”? What can be done today to offset the problems of the future?

In aggregate terms, fiscal debates have turned from what to do about growing federal budget surpluses to what constitutes the necessary size and composition of a stimulus package. Some economists have argued that, by creating a wider pool of funds available for investment, “fiscal responsibility” resulted in greater access to investment funds by private sector firms, which, in turn, stimulated economic growth. Others contend that the unprecedented growth of the 1990s happened in spite of budget surpluses, and that if the composition of private versus public funding had been more in balance, growth and employment would have expanded even further. These debates are related to those that surround the current demand shortfall and to calls for fiscal stimulus: if budget surpluses were the cause of economic growth, an argument can be made that fiscal stimulus should focus on investment-targeted tax cuts. If, however, surpluses were the result of economic growth, then demand-led fiscal policies, such as spending programs and tax cuts aimed broadly over the income distribution, should be the focus.

In responding to the above-listed issues, Levy Institute scholars have concentrated recent research on evaluating proposals that would alter the structure of Social Security to deal with future funding shortfalls, privatize any or all of the Social Security program, and restructure Medicaid financing to widen the availability of funding for long-term care. Other recent analyses deal with specific budgetary issues, such as tax-cut proposals and evaluation of the causes and effects of federal budget surpluses.

Research Program

Economic Policy for the 21st Century



Program Publications

  • Policy Note 2020/2 | April 2020
    The federal government appears to have abandoned the idea of a coordinated public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving the entirety to state and local governments. Meanwhile, the economic standstill resulting from necessary public health measures will soon cripple state and local budgets. Alexander Williams outlines a proposal for an intragovernmental automatic stabilizer program that would provide a backstop for state and local finances—both during the pandemic and beyond. Without this program, states will be severely constrained in their ability to respond to COVID-19, and balanced budget requirements will force them to cut jobs and raise taxes during the deepest recession in living memory.

  • Working Paper No. 933 | July 2019
    Making Sense of the Barro-Ricardo Equivalence in a Financialized World
    The 2008 crisis created a need to rethink many aspects of economic theory, including the role of public intervention in the economy. On this issue, we explore the Barro-Ricardo equivalence, which has played a decisive role in molding the economic policies that fostered the crisis. We analyze the equivalence and its theoretical underpinnings, concluding that: (1) it declares, but then forgets, that it does not matter whether the nature of debt and investment is public or private; (2) its most problematic assumption is the representative agent hypothesis, which does not allow for an explanation of financialization and cannot assess dangers coming from high levels of financial leverage; (3) social wealth cannot be based on any micro-foundation and is linked to the role of the state as provider of financial stability; and (4) default is always the optimal policy for the government, and this remains true even when relaxing many equivalence assumptions. We go on to discuss possible solutions to high levels of public debt in the real world, inferring that no general conclusions are possible and every solution or mix of solutions must be tailored to each specific case. We conclude by connecting different solutions to the political balance of forces in the current era of financialization, using Italy (and, by extension, the eurozone) as a concrete example to better illustrate the discussion.
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    Author(s):
    Lorenzo Esposito Giuseppe Mastromatteo
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  • Working Paper No. 883 | February 2017
    An Empirical Analysis of G20 Countries

    This paper analyzes the effectiveness of public expenditures on economic growth within the analytical framework of comprehensive Neo-Schumpeterian economics. Using a fixed-effects model for G20 countries, the paper investigates the links between the specific categories of public expenditures and economic growth, captured in human capital formation, defense, infrastructure development, and technological innovation. The results reveal that the impact of innovation-related spending on economic growth is much higher than that of the other macro variables. Data for the study was drawn from the International Monetary Fund’s Government Finance Statistics database, infrastructure reports for the G20 countries, and the World Development Indicators issued by the World Bank.

  • Working Paper No. 874 | September 2016
    Is There a Case for Gender-sensitive Horizontal Fiscal Equalization?

    This paper seeks to evaluate whether a gender-sensitive formula for the inter se devolution of union taxes to the states makes the process more progressive. We have used the state-specific child sex ratio (the number of females per thousand males in the age group 0–6 years) as one of the criteria for the tax devolution. The composite devolution formula as constructed provides maximum rewards to the state with the most favorable child-sex ratio, and the rewards progressively decline along with the declining sex ratio. In this formulation, the state with the most unfavorable child-sex ratio is penalized the most in terms of its share in the horizontal devolution. It is observed that the inclusion of gender criteria makes the intergovernmental fiscal transfers formula more equitable across states. This is not surprising given the monotonic decline in the sex ratio in some of the most high-income states in India.

  • Working Paper No. 872 | August 2016
    Do Fiscal Rules Impose Hard Budget Constraints?

    The primary objective of rule-based fiscal legislation at the subnational level in India is to achieve debt sustainability by placing a ceiling on borrowing and the use of borrowed resources for public capital investment by phasing out deficits in the budget revenue account. This paper examines whether the application of fiscal rules has contributed to an increase in fiscal space for public capital investment spending in major Indian states. Our analysis shows that, controlling for other factors, there is a negative relationship between fiscal rules and public capital investment spending at the state level under the rule-based fiscal regime.

  • One-Pager No. 13 | September 2011
    Research Scholar Greg Hannsgen and President Dimitri B. Papadimitriou disprove claims made by Social Security skeptics that the program is nothing more than a “Ponzi scheme.”

  • Working Paper No. 539 | July 2008
    Can the New Developments in the New Economic Consensus Be Reconciled with the Post-Keynesian View?

    The monetarist counterrevolution and the stagflation period of the 1970s were among the theoretical and practical developments that led to the rejection of fiscal policy as a useful tool for macroeconomic stabilization and full employment determination.  Recent mainstream contributions, however, have begun to reassess fiscal policy and have called for its restitution in certain cases. The goal of this paper is to delimit the role of and place for fiscal policy in the New Economic Consensus (NEC) and to compare it to that of Post-Keynesian theory, the latter arguably the most faithful approach to the original Keynesian message. The paper proposes that, while a consensus may exist on many macroeconomic issues within the mainstream, fiscal policy is not one of them. The designation of fiscal policy within the NEC is explored and contrasted with the Post-Keynesian calls for fiscal policy via Abba Lerner’s “functional finance” approach. The paper distinguishes between two approaches to functional finance—one that aims to boost aggregate demand and close the GDP gap, and one that secures full employment via direct job creation. It is argued that the mainstream has severed the Keynesian link between fiscal policy and full employment—a link that the Post-Keynesian approach promises to restore.

  • Working Paper No. 471 | August 2006

    This paper describes how stochastic population forecasts are used to inform and analyze policies related to government spending on the elderly, mainly in the context of the industrialized nations. The paper first presents methods for making probabilistic forecasts of demographic rates, mortality, fertility, and immigration, and shows how these are combined to make stochastic forecasts of population number and composition, using forecasts of the US population by way of illustration. Next, the paper discusses how demographic models and economic models can be combined into an integrated projection model of transfer systems such as social security. Finally, the paper shows how these integrated models describe various dimensions of policy-relevant risk, and discusses the nature and implications of risk in evaluating policy alternatives.

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    Associated Program(s):
    Author(s):
    Shripad Tuljapurkar