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CHAPTER FIFTEEN Government Debt. Annual Deficit (2002) Annual Deficit (2001) Annual Deficit (2000) Annual Deficit (1999) Annual Deficit (1998) Annual Deficit (1997).

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Government Debt

what is the government debt and the annual budget deficit

Annual Deficit (2002)

Annual Deficit (2001)

Annual Deficit (2000)

Annual Deficit (1999)

Annual Deficit (1998)

Annual Deficit (1997)

The government debt is an accumulation of all past annual deficits. In 2001, the debt of the U.S. federal government was $3.2 trillion.

National Debt

What is the government debt and the annual budget deficit?

When a government spends more than it collects in taxes, it borrows from the private sector to finance the budget deficit.

this chapter
This chapter:

1. Measuring problems in the government debt

2. The traditional view of government debt

3. Ricardian equivalence

4. Effects of government debt (on monetary policy, the political process and the role of a country in the world economy)


Problems in Measurement

The government budget deficit equals government spending minus government revenue, which in turn equals the amount of new debt the government needs to issue to finance its operations.

problems in measurement
Problems in measurement

1. Inflation

- the correction for inflation

- most economists agree that the government debt should be measured in real terms, not in nominal terms

- the deficit should equal the change in the government’s real debt, not the change in its nominal debt

problems in measurement6
Problems in measurement

2. Capital Assets

- we should subtract governmentassets from government debt.

Capital budgeting - a budget procedure that accounts for assets as well for liabilities, because it takes into account changes in capital

- Economists and policymakers disagree about whether the government should use capital budgeting

- It is quite difficult to implement it in practice

problems in measurement7
Problems in measurement

3. Uncounted Liabilities

- The measured budget deficit is misleading because it excludes some important government liabilities (for ex. the pensions of government workers)

4. The Business Cycle

- it is good to know whether the deficit has risen/fallen because the government has changed policy or because the economy has changed direction

- The government calculates a cyclically-adjusted budget deficit, based on estimates of what government spending and tax revenue would be if the economy were operating at its natural rate of output and employment).

2 main views of government debt
2 Main Views of Government Debt
  • The traditional view: when the government cuts taxes and runs a budget deficit, consumers respond to their higher after-tax income by spending more.A government deficit expands aggregate demand and stimulates output in the short run but crowds out capital and depresses investment in the long run.
  • The Ricardian view (Ricardian equivalence): consumers are forward-looking and, therefore, base their spending not only on their current income but also on their expected future income.

A government budget deficit has none of the above effects.


1. The Traditional View of Government Debt

Question: How would a tax cut and budget deficit affect the economy and the economic well-being of the country?

Chapter 3:

- a tax cut stimulates consumer spending and reduces national saving.

- the reduction in saving raises the interest rate, which crowds out investment.

Chapter 4:

- the Solow growth model shows that lower investment leads to a lower steady-state capital stock and lower output.

Chapter 10-11:

- the short-run impact of the policy change via the IS-LM model.


The Traditional View of Government Debt

Chapters 5 and 12 (how international trade affects this policy change):

- when national saving falls, people borrow from abroad, causing a trade deficit

- also the domestic currency appreciates

- the Mundell-Fleming model shows that the appreciation and the resulting fall in net exports reduce the short-run expansionary effect of the fiscal change.

2 the ricardian view of government debt





-DT, +DG

2. The Ricardian View of Government Debt

Forward-looking consumers perceive that lower taxes now mean higher taxes later, leaving consumption unchanged. “Tax cuts are simply tax postponements.”

When the government borrows to pay for its current spending (higher G), rational consumers look ahead to the future taxes required to support this debt.


Consumers and Future Taxes

The essence of the Ricardian view is that when people choose their consumption, they rationally look ahead to the future taxes implied by government debt.

But, how forward-looking are consumers?

Defenders of the traditional view of government debt believe that the prospect of future taxes does not have as large an influence on current consumption as the Ricardian view assumes.

Let’s see some of their arguments:

1 myopic short sighted consumers
1. Myopic (short-sighted) Consumers
  • Proponents of the Ricardian view assume that people are rational when making decisions such as choosing how much of their income to consume and how much to save. When the government borrows to pay for current spending, rational consumers look ahead to anticipate the future taxes required to support this debt.
  • One argument for the traditional view is that people are myopic (short-sighted), meaning that they see a decrease in taxes in such a way that their current consumption increases because of this new “wealth.” They don’t see that when expansionary fiscal policy is financed through bonds, they will just have to pay more taxes in the future since bonds are just tax-postponements.

2. Borrowing Constraints

The Ricardian view of government debt: assumes that consumers base their spending not only on current but on their lifetime income, which includes both current and expected future income.

The traditional view of government debt: argues that current consumption is more important than lifetime income for those consumers who face borrowing constraints, which are limits on how much an individual can borrow from financial institutions.

A person who wants to consume more than his current income must borrow. If he can’t borrow to finance his current consumption, his current income determines what he can consume, regardless of his future income. In this case, a debt-financed tax cut raises current income and thus consumption, even though future income is lower. In essence, when a government cuts current taxes and raises future taxes, it is giving tax payers a loan.


3. Future Generations

Traditional view: consumers expect the implied future taxes to fall not on them but on future generations.

Example: the government cuts taxes today, issues 30-year bonds to finance the budget deficit, and then raises taxes in 30 years to repay the loan.

Here, the government debt represents a transfer of wealth from the next generation of tax payers to the current generation of taxpayers.

This transfer raises the lifetime resources of the current generation, so it raises their consumption.

Robert Barro

- the example of parents leave bequests to their children

- the relevant decisionmaking unit is not the individual (who lives a finite number of years), but the family (which continues forever).


Balanced Budgets Versus Optimal Fiscal Policy

Most economists oppose a strict rule requiring the government to balance

the budget. There are three reasons why optimal fiscal policy may at

times call for a budget deficit or surplus:

1) Stabilization

2) Tax Smoothing

3) Intergenerational redistribution



A budget deficit or surplus can help stabilize the economy.

A balanced budget rule would revoke the automatic stabilizing powers of the system of taxes and transfers. When the economy goes into a recession, tax receipts fall, and transfers automatically rise. Although these automatic responses help stabilize the economy, they push the budget into deficit. A strict balanced budget rule would require that the government raise taxes or reduce spending in a recession, but these actions would further depress aggregate demand.


Tax Smoothing

A budget deficit or surplus can be used to reduce the distortion of incentives caused by the tax system. High tax rates impose a cost on society by discouraging economic activity. Because this disincentive is so costly at particularly high tax rates, the total social cost of taxes is minimized by keeping tax rates relatively stable rather than making them high in some years and low in others. This policy is called tax smoothing. To keep tax rates smooth, a deficit is necessary in years of unusually low income or unusually high expenditure.


Intergenerational Redistribution

A budget deficit can be used to shift a tax burden from current to

future generations. For example, some economists argue that if the current generation fights a war to maintain freedom, future generations benefit as well, and should therefore bear some of the burden. To pass on the war’s costs, the current generation can finance the war with a budget deficit. The government can later retire that debt by raising taxes on the next generation.


Fiscal Effects on Monetary Policy

One way for a government to finance a budget deficit is to print money (seigniorage)-- a policy that leads to higher inflation. When countries experience hyperinflation, the typical reason is that fiscal policymakers are relying on the inflation tax to pay for some of their spending. The ends of hyperinflation almost always coincide with fiscal reforms that include large cuts in government spending and therefore a reduced need for seigniorage.


Key Concepts of Ch. 15

Capital budgeting

Cyclically adjusted budget deficit

Ricardian equivalence