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

  • Public Policy Brief No. 155 | June 2021
    Yes, If He Abandons Fiscal “Pay Fors"
    President Biden’s proposals for investing in social and physical infrastructure signal a return to a budget-neutral policymaking framework that has largely been set aside since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis. According Yeva Nersisyan and L. Randall Wray, this focus on ensuring revenues keep pace with spending increases can undermine the goals internal to both the public investment and tax components of the administration’s plans: the “pay for” approach limits our spending on progressive policy to what we can raise through taxes, and we will only tax the amount we need to spend.

    Nersisyan and Wray propose an alternative approach to budgeting for large-scale public expenditure programs. In their view, policymakers should evaluate spending and tax proposals on their own terms, according to the goals each is intended to meet. If the purpose of taxing corporations and wealthy individuals is to reduce inequality, then the tax changes should be formulated to accomplish that—not to “raise funds” to finance proposed spending. And while it is possible that general tax hikes might be needed to prevent public investment programs from fueling inflation, they argue that the kinds of taxes proposed by the administration would do little to relieve inflationary pressures should they arise. Under current economic circumstances, however, the president’s proposed infrastructure spending should not require budgetary offsets or other measures to control inflation in their estimation.

  • Policy Note 2021/3 | June 2021
    Edward Lane and L. Randall Wray explain how federal taxes on corporate profits are not well suited to either containing inflationary pressures or reducing inequality. They are not only a poor complement to President Biden’s proposed infrastructure plans, but are inefficient and ineffective taxes more broadly, according to Lane and Wray. The authors follow Hyman Minsky in recommending the elimination of corporate taxes, and they outline a replacement centered on the taxation of unrealized capital gains.

  • One-Pager No. 67 | June 2021
    President Biden has proposed pairing his American Jobs Plan with an increase in federal corporate income taxes. Leaving aside the issue of whether any tax increases are needed to “pay for” the plan, Edward Lane and L. Randall Wray assess the proposed corporate profits tax hike in terms of its ability to meet two objectives: (1) fighting potential inflation that might result from the new Jobs Plan (and all the other relief and stimulus plans enacted), and (2) taxing the rich to reduce inequality. They argue the federal corporate income tax is far less effective at combating inflation and inequality than what many might think, and propose replacing corporate taxation with taxes on individuals that would ensure the burden is mostly imposed on high earners.

  • Working Paper No. 979 | November 2020
    As the nation is experiencing the need for ever-increasing government expenditures to address COVID-19 disruptions, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, and many other worthy causes, conventional thinking calls for restoring at least a portion corporate taxes eliminated by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, especially from progressive circles. In this working paper, Edward Lane and L. Randall Wray examine who really pays the corporate income tax and argue that it does not serve the purposes most people believe.

    The authors provide an overview of the true purposes and incidence of corporate taxation and argue that it is inefficient and largely borne by consumers and employees, not shareholders. While the authors would prefer the elimination of the corporate profits tax, they understand the conventional thinking that taxes are necessary to help finance government expenditures—even if they disagree. Accordingly, the authors present alternatives to the corporate tax that shift the burden from consumers and employees to those who benefit the most from corporate success.

  • One-Pager No. 64 | August 2020
    As congressional negotiations stall and state governments are poised to enact significant austerity, Alex Williams argues that fiscal aid to state governments should be tied to economic indicators rather than the capriciousness of federal legislators. Building this case for reform requires confronting a common objection: that state fiscal aid creates situations of moral hazard. This objection misconstrues the agency of state governments and misunderstands the incentives of federal politicians, according to Williams. There is a serious moral hazard problem involved here—but it is not the one widely claimed.

  • Public Policy Brief No. 152 | August 2020
    The mainstream fiscal federalism literature has led to an instinctive belief that states receiving fiscal aid during a recession are taking advantage of the federal government in pursuit of localized benefits with dispersed costs. This policy brief by Alex Williams challenges this unreflective argument and, in response, offers a novel framework for understanding the relationship between the business cycle and fiscal federalism in the United States.

    Utilizing the work of Michael Pettis, Williams demonstrates that a government unable to design its own capital structure is not meaningfully an agent with respect to the business cycle. As such, they cannot be considered agents in a moral hazard problem when receiving support from the federal government during a recession.

    From the perspective of this policy brief, the operative moral hazard problem is one in which federal-level politicians reap a political benefit from a seemingly principled refusal to increase federal spending, while avoiding blame for crisis and austerity at the state and local government level. Williams’ proposed solution is to impose macroeconomic discipline on federal policymakers by creating automatic stabilizers that take decisions about the level of state fiscal aid in a recession out of their hands.

  • Working Paper No. 964 | July 2020
    Analyzing the Fiscal Forecasting Errors of 28 States in India
    Budget credibility, or the ability of governments to accurately forecast macro-fiscal variables, is crucial for effective public finance management. Fiscal marksmanship analysis captures the extent of errors in the budgetary forecasting. The fiscal rules can determine fiscal marksmanship, as effective fiscal consolidation procedures affect the fiscal behavior of the states in conducting the budgetary forecasts. Against this backdrop, applying Theil’s technique, we analyze the fiscal forecasting errors for 28 states (except Telangana) in India for the period 2011–16. There is a heterogeneity in the magnitude of errors across subnational governments in India. The forecast errors in revenue receipts have been greater than revenue expenditure. Within revenue receipts, the errors are more significantly pronounced in the grants component. Within expenditure budgets, the errors in capital spending are found to be greater than revenue spending in all the states. Partitioning the sources of errors, we identified that the errors were more broadly random than due to systematic bias, except for a few crucial macro-fiscal variables where improving the forecasting techniques can provide better estimates.

  • Policy Note 2020/5 | July 2020
    In this policy note, Jan Toporowski provides an analysis of government debt management using fiscal principles derived from the work of Michał Kalecki. Dividing the government’s budget into a “functional” and “financial” budget, Toporowski demonstrates how a financial budget balance—servicing government debt from taxes on wealth and profits that do not affect incomes and expenditures in the economy—allows a government to manage its debts without compromising the macroeconomic goals set in the functional budget. By splitting the budget into a functional budget that affects the real economy and a financial budget that just maintains debt payments and the liquidity of the financial system, the government can have two independent instruments that can be used to target, respectively, the macroeconomy and government debt—overcoming a dilemma that makes fiscal policy ineffective. This analysis also explains how pursuit of supply-side policies that result in a financial budget deficit and functional budget surplus can lead to slow growth, rising government debt, and financial instability.

  • 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.