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Policy Hub: Macroblog provides concise commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues for a broad audience.

Authors for Policy Hub: Macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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October 17, 2011

State and local fiscal fortunes: Follow the money (collected)

Last week, we found ourselves in conversation with some colleagues discussing the issue of state and local fiscal conditions, which by pure coincidence coincided with the announcement that the city of Harrisburg, Pa., filed for bankruptcy. In the course of conversation, our attention was drawn to an interesting fact. Prior to 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data through 2008, annual growth of total revenues at the state and local level was closely aligned with direct expenditures at the same level. Since 2000, however, this pattern has decidedly changed. The main reason is the dramatic volatility of total revenue:

Revenues at the state and local level come from many sources. Taxes from income, sales, and property, of course, but also from various fees and charges associated from education, utilities, ports and airports, and so on. In addition, revenues come from transfers from the federal government and, importantly, asset income from trust fund portfolios.

In fact, the primary source of the increased volatility in state and local government revenues since 2000 is large swings in revenue going into insurance trust funds to finance compulsory or voluntary social insurance programs operated by the public sector.

Insurance trust revenue is derived from contributions, assessments, premiums, or payroll "taxes" required of employers and employees. It also includes any earnings on assets held or invested by such funds. Not surprisingly then, the volatility of insurance trust revenue is partly tied to volatility in financial markets, as the chart below clearly illustrates.

Though fluctuations in insurance fund revenues have been the largest source of fluctuations in overall state and local revenues over the past decade or so, volatility in general revenue is still an issue. Ups and downs in income tax revenues have been particularly sharp since 2000.

Interestingly, Census Bureau data for state government finances show tax revenue growth turned negative in 2009.

In research that focuses specifically on revenue variability at the state level, UCLA law professor Kirk Stark notes the possibility that state revenues have too much reliance on the same income-centric tax base that characterizes the federal revenue code:

"Perhaps the most obvious (yet little discussed) federal inducement for the design of state and local tax systems is the fact that Congress has established an elaborate and detailed legal framework for certain taxes—including, most notably, the individual and corporate income taxes—but not for others. The very existence of the Code, Treasury Regulations, IRS administrative guidance, and federal judicial case law creates an almost irresistible incentive for the states to adopt individual and corporate income taxes. The availability of the federal income tax base as a starting point in calculating state tax liability is an unqualified benefit. …

"At the same time, however, there are potentially significant costs associated with having states piggyback on the federal income tax. Taxes that might be suitable for use by a central level of government are not necessarily appropriate for use by state or local governments. Some of the most volatile state revenue sources are those upon which states rely by virtue of piggybacking on the federal income tax."

The theme of Professor Stark's article is the role that federal policy might play in generating revenue volatility at the state level:

"Through various inducements and limitations embedded in federal law, the federal government has stacked the deck in favor of state revenue volatility, unwittingly exacerbating the subnational fiscal crises that it is then called upon to mitigate through bailouts and general fiscal relief."

Some other examples of how federal tax policy can have an impact on state and local policy according to Stark include "differential treatment of alternative tax sources within the federal income tax deduction for state and local taxes" and "various specific provisions in federal law that limit state taxing authority."
Professor Stark is clear on the point that the research in this area has defied simple generic conclusions about how state and local tax codes can be constructed to minimize revenue volatility. And the work is largely silent on how the volatility question fits into the broader question of optimal tax-system design. But it is hard to argue with this conclusion:

"If the federal government is interested in reducing the likelihood and severity of future state fiscal crises, it should consider changes to federal law that would eliminate the current bias in favor of volatile state tax systems."

David Altig By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed


John Robertson John Robertson, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department

May 19, 2011

The long and short (runs) of tax reform

In an earlier part of my career, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about fiscal policy issues. The evolution of my responsibilities eventually moved my attentions in a somewhat different direction, but you never really forget your first research love. With questions of debt, government spending, and taxes at the top of the news, it isn't hard for my old fondness for the topic to reemerge.

So, in that context, I had a somewhat nostalgic response to an item at Angry Bear, written by contributor Dan Crawford. In essence, the Crawford post formally (through statistical analysis) asks the question "How is GDP growth related to marginal tax rates (that is, the tax rate applied to your last dollar of income)?" More specifically, Crawford analyzes how gross domestic product (GDP) growth next year is related to the marginal tax rate faced by the average individual and the marginal tax rate faced by the highest-income taxpayers.

I don't intend to quibble with the specifics of that experiment per se but rather highlight an aspect of taxation and tax reform that I think should not be forgotten. That is, the short run is no place for a decent discussion of tax policy to be hanging out. To say that more formally, the largest effects of tax policy accrue over time, and it is probably not a good idea to be too focused on the immediate—say, next year's—effects of any given policy or change in policy.

The following chart is based on tax reform experiments in a paper I co-authored over a decade ago with Alan Auerbach, Larry Kotlikoff, Kent Smetters, and Jan Walliser. (Note that the chart does not appear in the paper, but I created it using data from the paper—a publicly available version of the paper can be found here.) The chart depicts the cumulative percentage increases in national income that would be realized (in our model) in the years following three different tax reforms.

The three experiments depicted in this chart were as follows:

"[The clean income tax] replaces the progressive taxation of wage income with a single rate that is also applied to capital income. In addition, the clean income tax eliminates the major federal tax-base reductions including the standard deduction, personal and dependent exemptions, itemized deductions, the deductibility of state income taxes at the federal level, and preferential tax treatment of fringe benefits...

"Our flat tax experiment modifies the clean consumption tax by including a standard deduction of $9500. In addition, housing wealth, which equals about half of the capital stock, is entirely exempt from taxation."

Parenthetically, the "clean consumption tax"

"...differs from the clean income tax by including full expensing of investment expenditures. This produces a consumption-tax structure. Formally, we specify the system as a combination of a labor-income tax and a business cash-flow tax."


"Our [flat tax with transition relief] experiment adds transition relief to the flat tax by extending pre-reform depreciation rules for capital in place at the time of the tax reform."

Here's what I want to emphasize in all of this. If the change in policy you might be considering involves a reduction in effective marginal tax rates (implemented via a combination of changes in statutory rates and adjustments in deductions and exemptions), the approach taken by Crawford in his Angry Bear piece is probably acceptable. The clean income tax reform is in the spirit of Crawford's calculations, and in our results the long-run impact on output is realized almost immediately. If, however, the tax reform involves changing the tax base in a fundamental way (in both versions of our flat tax experiments the base shifts from income to consumption), then the ultimate effects are felt only gradually. In our flat tax experiments, the longer-run effects on income are in the neighborhood of three times as large as the near-term effects.

All of the experiments described were done under the assumption of revenue neutrality, so questions of the right policy for budget balancing exercises weren't explicitly addressed. (Nor is it the nature of the experiment contemplated in the Angry Bear post.) Nonetheless, they do suggest that deficit reduction exercises that involve changes in tax rates and the tax base will have differential effects over time, and realizing the full benefits of tax reform may require a modicum of patience.

Note: A user-friendly description of the paper that the chart above is based on appeared in an Economic Commentary article published by the Cleveland Fed.

Update: Though the item at Angry Bear was posted by Dan Crawford, Mike Kimel actually wrote it. I apologize for the mistake and draw your attention to Kimel's follow-up post.

Dave Altig By Dave Altig
senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

April 18, 2011

Can Keynesians be anti-Keynesian?

Follow any policy debate, and you are sure to find a list of economists who support or inspire those on both sides of the issue. In The Economist, we find some of those on the roster for the new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, and why:

"When Republicans proposed slashing billions of dollars from federal spending this year, Democrats circulated predictions by economists that jobs and growth would be hit. John Boehner, the Republican speaker in the House of Representatives, countered with an economic expert of his own: John Taylor of Stanford University. 'Nothing could be more contrary to basic economics, experience and facts,' Mr. Taylor asserted on his blog, which Mr. Boehner cited. By cutting government spending, he said, the Republicans would 'crowd in' private investment and create jobs.

"… if there is one ideology that unites today's Republicans, it is Keynesianism, whose nefarious influence they are determined to stamp out. 'Young Guns,' the book-sized manifesto of Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, leading Republican House members, devotes several pages to the evils of Keynesian activism and its exponents in the administration."

One of the interesting things about the article is that among the economists cited as being among the critics of "Keynesianism," you find the names John Taylor, Robert Mundell, and Kenneth Rogoff. I find that list interesting because if you follow the links I attached to those names you will find work with models that are decidedly Keynesian in structure. Works by Taylor and Rogoff are, in fact, seminal contributions to the "New Keynesian" paradigm that dominates macroeconomics today.

As far as I know, none of these men have repudiated the basic worldview that motivates the referenced work. In fact, as recently as last year John Taylor approvingly described, as he has many times, a key characteristic of the paradigm for monetary policy that was in place the decades before the financial crisis:

"… the central bank has a strategy, or rule, to adjust the interest rate depending on economic conditions: In general, the interest rate rises by a certain amount when inflation increases above its target and the interest rate falls when by a certain amount when the economy goes into a recession."

I added the emphasis to the last part of that passage as it is a feature of the so-called Taylor rule that is entirely built on the foundation of the New Keynesian model.

How, then, to explain the Keynesian predilections of the economists mentioned as presumed carriers of the anti-Keynesian mantle? The source of the confusion, I think, goes back to the historical, but somewhat obsolete, distinction between so-called Keynesianism and monetarism. The latter was, of course, personified in Milton Friedman and his dispute with what was the orthodoxy in the three decades following the Great Depression. Lost in the early-days labeling, however, was the fact that the disputes were more about the empirical details of theory rather than the theory itself.

In particular, Friedman did not deny the effectiveness of policy in principle but rather its wisdom or impact in practice. This sentiment is exactly the one he expressed in his prescient and transformative 1968 presidential address to the American Economics Association:

"In the United States the revival of belief in the potency of monetary policy was strengthened also by the increasing disillusionment with fiscal policy, not so much by its potential to increase aggregate demand as with the practical and political feasibility of so using it."

In a recent essay on Friedman's views about the ineffectiveness of fiscal policy, Tim Congdon notes Friedman's views on the issue:

"Friedman offered two informal theoretical arguments for the virtual irrelevance of fiscal policy, as he saw it. The second was that fiscal policy is much harder to adjust in a sensitive short-term way than monetary policy. But the first was the more telling and deserves detailed discussion.… In Friedman's words, 'I believe it to be true… that the Keynesian view that a government deficit is stimulating is simply wrong.' The explanation was the wider effects of the way the budget deficit is financed. To quote again, 'A deficit is not stimulating because it has to be financed, and the negative effects of financing it counterbalance the positive effects, if there are any, on spending.' "

Though Congdon emphasizes different channels (associated with the mix of monetary and fiscal policy associated with deficit spending), those who follow such things may recognize in Friedman's remarks the notion of Ricardian equivalence:

"This is the idea that increased government borrowing may have no impact on consumer spending because consumers predict tax cuts or higher spending will lead to future tax increases to pay back the debt.

"If this theory is true, it would mean a tax cut financed by higher borrowing would have no impact on increasing aggregate demand because consumers would save the tax cut to pay the future tax increases."

My point is not to dispute or defend the truth of the Ricardian proposition. My point is that it has absolutely nothing to do with whether one believes (or does not believe) that the New Keynesian framework is the right way to view the world. The essential policy implications of the New Keynesian idea (like the old Keynesian idea) is that changes in gross domestic product can be driven by changes in desired spending by households, businesses, foreigners, and the government in sum. You can believe that and still believe in fiscal policy ineffectiveness, as long as you believe that total spending is unaltered by a particular policy intervention.

There are, of course, plenty of arguments against fiscal policy activism that do not require adherence to Ricardian equivalence, in total or in part. The most obvious would be the position that any short-term rush from stimulative policies is more than reversed in the long run by the negative consequences of higher tax rates on productive activity, or the redirection of private investment to lower return public spending. Again, the point is that a self-professed adherent to a Keynesian reality need suffer no doubts about the coherence of his or her intellectual framework if he or she objects to fiscal policies aimed at juicing the economy through greater government spending.

This whole discussion may seem like a bit of inside baseball, and perhaps it is. But the stakes in this debate are high, as clearly illustrated by today's announcement from rating agency Standard & Poor's that it reduced its outlook to negative on the triple-A credit rating of the United States. In my view, productive discussions about the truly pressing issues of our day are unlikely unless we understand where the disagreements lie—and where they do not.

Photo of Dave Altig By Dave Altig
senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

November 23, 2010

Federal Reserve policies focused

This blog posting was originally an article in the Sunday, November 21, edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The article was written by Atlanta Fed Senior Vice President and Research Director David Altig.

On Nov. 3, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)—the group within the Federal Reserve charged with formulating monetary policy for the United States—announced its plans to purchase, over the course of the next eight months, up to $600 billion worth of longer-term Treasury securities.

In many circles (maybe including yours), this decision has generated some controversy. A good deal of the controversy revolves around the view that this monetary policy decision is aimed at buying up government debt for the purpose of making it easier for the country to continue on the path of deficit spending. This view is inaccurate.

I understand the concerns that are triggered when the Fed announces a significant Treasury purchase program at a time when the fiscal situation is so challenging and unsettled. Be it the hyperinflations of Germany's Weimar Republic in the period between the two world wars; Hungary after World War II; or the more recent case of Zimbabwe, most of us have heard or read of extreme examples of countries that ended up creating big problems trying to finance government by printing money.

Generating government revenues via the printing press is a policy that is often referred to as "monetizing the debt." I think the emphasis in that sentence should be on the word policy. A policy is really a sort of rule—sometimes explicit, sometimes only implicit—that lays out a decision maker's objectives and how they are going to be attained. The objective of a policy of monetizing the debt is to create inflation as a means of lowering the burden of government debt by lowering the value of the debt and interest the government must repay in inflation-adjusted terms.

Monetizing debt is decidedly not the current policy of the Federal Reserve, at least not according to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Speaking at a recent conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Chairman Bernanke was unequivocal: "We are not in the business of trying to create inflation."

So what business is the Fed in?

In short, the Fed's so-called dual mandate charges the FOMC with promoting sustainable growth and low and stable inflation. Though the economy is moving forward, it is doing so at a pace that is only slowly yielding job growth. This forward momentum has not yet proved robust or sustained enough to dent the unemployment rate.

More important, the economic landscape at the end of the summer was colored by the continuation of a declining inflation trend that was bleeding into expectations about the probability of deflation. In a still-recovering economy with very low interest rates, the emergence of deflation expectations would be a most unwelcome development that could seriously impede the prospect for continued recovery.

As Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart has said, stabilizing inflation expectations is a key to policy success, and "managing inflation expectations requires following through with policy actions consistent with stated objectives—in this case ensuring that inflation trends remain in a desired zone. The FOMC's November decision should be seen in that light."

The policy represented by the November decision appears to be working. As markets came to expect the November announcement, price expectations that had been declining all summer began to stabilize and have now returned to pre-summer levels.

Could the policy be too successful? That is, there a risk that the policy will overshoot and replace declining inflation rates with too-high inflation rates?

There are, of course, always risks to action and inaction. Now that the FOMC's action has apparently mitigated the risk of a recovery-threatening disinflationary spiral, at some point it will be appropriate to turn attention to inflation risks. As President Lockhart recently commented, we at the Atlanta Fed are confident these decisions will be made independent of fiscal considerations.

The current focus is on rising commodity prices, and the Federal Reserve, including the Atlanta Fed, is watching those developments too.

As one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks charged with bringing a real-time sense of the economy to the monetary policy process, the Atlanta Fed queries hundreds of contacts every month. In general, our contacts, while acknowledging some rising cost pressures, do not indicate they are likely to respond with price hikes of their own.

But we will keep asking, watching for signs that things are changing, and preparing in the event that a change in course is warranted.

And this vigilance is precisely the point. Intentions do matter, and President Lockhart has made his very clear: "Rest assured, should inflation begin to move above desired levels, I am confident the FOMC will work hard to keep it from getting away from us."

By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed