Now they tell us. A new NBER paper from Harvard’s Alberto F. Alesina and Silvia Ardagna (“Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes Versus Spending”) makes the case for tax cuts over spending as stimulus:
As we well know a very large portion of the current astronomical 12 percent of GDP deficit is the result of bailout of various types of the financial sector. … But part of the deficit is the result of the stimulus package that was passed to lift the economy out of the recession. About two third of this fiscal package is constituted by increases in spending, including public investment, transfers and government consumption. According to our results fiscal stimuli based upon tax cut are much more likely to be growth enhancing than those on the spending side. In this respect the US stimulus plan seems too much based upon spending.
Needless to say when considering a single episode many other factors jump to mind, factors which are difficult to capture in a multi country regressions. For instance, American families were saving too little before the crisis. An income tax cut might have just simply been saved and might have had not a big impact on aggregate consumption. However, more saving might have reinforced the financial sector, think of the credit card crisis for instance. In addition, one could have though of tax cuts that stimulate investment. Also, given the gravity of the crisis an increase in the generosity of unemployed benefits seems quite warranted both in terms of social justice and in terms of sustaining aggregate demand, since the unemployed probably save very little anyway. The benefit of infrastructure projects which have “long and variable lags” is much more questionable.