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Create a “Fiscal Switch” to Make Our Economy More Resilient Against Recessions

The federal government is on track to run a record-shattering $4 trillion budget deficit in 2020, in large part due to its aggressive fiscal response to the pandemic-induced recession. Some on the right have raised alarm about this borrowing, despite their support for budget-busting tax cut and border-control policies over the last three years. The hypocritical chorus will likely only grow louder if Democrat Joe Biden is elected president in November.

But temporary deficits are an invaluable tool for mitigating the damage caused by economic downturns, as government spending replaces a drop in demand from the private sector. The long-term fiscal costs of failing to support an economy with a double-digit unemployment rate would far exceed those of even the most overzealous stimulus measures. Necessary fiscal support should therefore continue as long as the economy remains hobbled by the coronavirus, no matter the cost.

However, Washington also faces structural deficits that will persist long after the pandemic has been contained. Thanks to the Trump administration’s reckless borrowing binge at a time when the unemployment rate was below 5 percent, the federal government was already projected to spend over $1 trillion more than it raised in revenue even before the pandemic hit. This structural deficit will only grow worse in the coming years because our nation’s aging population is causing federal spending on health-care and retirement programs to grow significantly faster than the revenues needed to finance them. The Trump administration did not create these problems, but it did make them significantly worse with its pre-pandemic fiscal policy and its disastrous handling of the public health crisis.

In the two years following the 2008 financial crisis, the national debt grew from less than 40 percent of gross domestic product to more than 60 percent of GDP. In 2020 alone, the debt will likely surpass the all-time high it reached following the end of World War 2 (106 percent of GDP). The rising cost of servicing this growing debt threatens to crowd out critical public investments that lay the foundation for long-term growth after the recession ends.

The federal government spent more money servicing the national debt last year than it spent on critical public investments in education, infrastructure, and scientific research combined. Although interest rates are low now, they eventually will rise as the economy recovers. Allowing interest payments on our debt to further crowd out these investments – which have already fallen by nearly 40 percent in real terms since the 1980s – would have disastrous consequences, including lower incomes, fewer high-quality jobs, and reduced economic mobility.

It is therefore essential to pay down the debt during expansions to create fiscal space for the necessary surge in short-term borrowing during recessions. Unfortunately, Washington has often waited too long to enact sufficient stimulus in response to recessions, and then failed to summon the will to narrow the structural gap between taxes and spending when the economy rebounds.

To make our economy more resilient against downturns, PPI proposes the federal government adopt a “fiscal switch” that automatically balances out the business cycle by increasing spending during recessions and recouping the cost during subsequent periods of economic growth. This switch would trigger based on economic variables such as the unemployment rate and operate through three mechanisms: a rebalanced relationship between federal and state governments, a more dynamic and progressive tax code, and phased-in reforms to mandatory spending programs driving our structural deficits. Implementing these automatic mechanisms, as recommended here and in PPI’s Emergency Economics report earlier this year, takes politics out of these decisions and ensures stimulus or deficit reduction will be implemented as warranted by economic conditions.

The first step is to better leverage the federal government’s unique borrowing capacity, which is unavailable to the vast majority of state and local governments required by law to balance their budget each year. Many government programs, including Medicaid, infrastructure, and education spending, are partnerships in which the federal government provides matching grants for state and local spending.

Some of these partnerships could be improved by allowing matching rates to adjust up or down automatically based on a state’s unemployment rate. This would prevent state and local governments from having to cut essential services during a downturn while asking them to shoulder a greater share of program costs when their budgets are healthy.

Other programs that currently function as a federal-state partnership but whose costs fluctuate significantly with the business cycle would benefit from becoming more nationalized. For example, when Congress tried to ensure that unemployment insurance replaced a minimum percentage of lost wages for everyone who was laid off in the early days of the coronavirus recession, lawmakers found they were unable to do so because of outdated operational infrastructure in a messy patchwork of 50 different state programs. As a result, policymakers were forced to settle for a controversial across-the-board benefit increase of $600 per week that gave some laid-off workers even more income from unemployment benefits than they lost in missed wages, while failing to make others whole. Even worse, Congressional squabbling over how long to maintain this benefit increase allowed them to lapse temporarily in the midst of an economic crisis.

Moving the operations of unemployment insurance and similarly-situated safety-net programs off state balance sheets and onto the federal government’s, in addition to automatically making benefits more generous during downturns and phasing them out in recoveries, would leverage Washington’s fiscal firepower in recessions when it’s needed most.

The second step is to make the income tax code more progressive, which serves as a strong automatic fiscal stabilizer by boosting average tax rates when incomes rise in expansions and lowering them when incomes fall in recessions. This objective could be accomplished by closing tax preferences for the wealthy, such as lower tax rates on inherited income and income from capital gains, while expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and other pro-worker tax incentives. PPI also favors replacing the antiquated payroll tax with a dynamic value-added tax – which has a rate that automatically falls during recessions and rises during expansions – to encourage hiring and consumption when the economy needs it most and reclaim substantial revenues during economic expansions.

Finally, lawmakers must take additional measures to rein in the drivers of underlying structural deficits automatically when the fiscal switch calls for a pivot away from stimulus. Social Security and Medicare – the two largest programs in the federal budget – both face the prospect of becoming insolvent within the next decade, potentially leading to sudden and across-the-board benefit cuts for millions of seniors if lawmakers take no action to close the growing gap between dedicated revenue and scheduled benefits. Significant deficit reduction that takes effect in the middle of a recession could be catastrophic, but lawmakers should put in place a process now to develop and phase in a balanced package of revenue increases and benefit changes as the economy recovers. PPI’s Progressive Budget for Equitable Growth offers policymakers a model for how they can modernize these programs to strengthen work incentives, retirement security and financial sustainability in a way that is fair to both younger workers and older beneficiaries.

The right fiscal policy in a recession is not the right fiscal policy for an expansion, and vice versa. Washington politicians are often too slow or ideologically beholden to react sufficiently swiftly to changing economic circumstances. Taking these steps and creating a two-sided fiscal switch will give our government the tools it needs to manage the economy through both the ups and the downs of the business cycle.

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