Fiscal policy is the set of policies that relate to federal government spending, taxation, and borrowing. In recent decades, the level of federal government spending and taxes, expressed as a share of GDP, has not changed much, typically fluctuating between about 18% to 22% of GDP. However, the level of state spending and taxes, as a share of GDP, has risen from about 12–13% to about 20% of GDP over the last four decades. The four main areas of federal spending are national defense, Social Security, healthcare, and interest payments, which together account for about 70% of all federal spending. When a government spends more than it collects in taxes, it is said to have a budget deficit. When a government collects more in taxes than it spends, it is said to have a budget surplus. If government spending and taxes are equal, it is said to have a balanced budget. The sum of all past deficits and surpluses make up the government debt.
The two main federal taxes are individual income taxes and payroll taxes that provide funds for Social Security and Medicare; these taxes together account for more than 80% of federal revenues. Other federal taxes include the corporate income tax, excise taxes on alcohol, gasoline and tobacco, and the estate and gift tax. A progressive tax is one, like the federal income tax, where those with higher incomes pay a higher share of taxes out of their income than those with lower incomes. A proportional tax is one, like the payroll tax for Medicare, where everyone pays the same share of taxes regardless of income level. A regressive tax is one, like the payroll tax (above a certain threshold) that supports Social Security, where those with high income pay a lower share of income in taxes than those with lower incomes.
For most of the twentieth century, the U.S. government took on debt during wartime and then paid down that debt slowly in peacetime. However, it took on quite substantial debts in peacetime in the 1980s and early 1990s, before a brief period of budget surpluses from 1998 to 2001, followed by a return to annual budget deficits since 2002, with very large deficits in the recession of 2008 and 2009. A budget deficit or budget surplus is measured annually. Total government debt or national debt is the sum of budget deficits and budget surpluses over time.
Expansionary fiscal policy increases the level of aggregate demand, either through increases in government spending or through reductions in taxes. Expansionary fiscal policy is most appropriate when an economy is in recession and producing below its potential GDP. Contractionary fiscal policy decreases the level of aggregate demand, either through cuts in government spending or increases in taxes. Contractionary fiscal policy is most appropriate when an economy is producing above its potential GDP.
Fiscal policy is conducted both through discretionary fiscal policy, which occurs when the government enacts taxation or spending changes in response to economic events, or through automatic stabilizers, which are taxing and spending mechanisms that, by their design, shift in response to economic events without any further legislation. The standardized employment budget is the calculation of what the budget deficit or budget surplus would have been in a given year if the economy had been producing at its potential GDP in that year. Many economists and politicians criticize the use of fiscal policy for a variety of reasons, including concerns over time lags, the impact on interest rates, and the inherently political nature of fiscal policy. We cover the critique of fiscal policy in the next module.
Because fiscal policy affects the quantity of money that the government borrows in financial capital markets, it not only affects aggregate demand—it can also affect interest rates. If an expansionary fiscal policy also causes higher interest rates, then firms and households are discouraged from borrowing and spending, reducing aggregate demand in a situation called crowding out. Given the uncertainties over interest rate effects, time lags (implementation lag, legislative lag, and recognition lag), temporary and permanent policies, and unpredictable political behavior, many economists and knowledgeable policymakers have concluded that discretionary fiscal policy is a blunt instrument and better used only in extreme situations.
Balanced budget amendments are a popular political idea, but the economic merits behind such proposals are questionable. Most economists accept that fiscal policy needs to be flexible enough to accommodate unforeseen expenditures, such as wars or recessions. While persistent, large budget deficits can indeed be a problem, a balanced budget amendment prevents even small, temporary deficits that might, in some cases, be necessary.