Professor Richard Murphy argued yesterday in a tweet that the government should be aiming to cut taxes in a recession. He duplicated that tweet in his blog, but the core point he makes is this:
When facing a recession a government should
– cut interest rates
– cut taxes
– increase its spending.
In a recession, a government needs to stimulate the economy, and that can be done by injecting resources. I’d question, however, whether either of the first two would actually stimulate the economy as things stand. Interest rates have been close to zero for some time, and while lowering them further (perhaps into negative rates) would have some effect on economic activity – primarily, dis-saving, converting holdings from money to goods (such as houses) and diverting money to activities or locations which offer higher interest rates elsewhere – most of those effects have already been realised. Cutting taxes – the policy of the catastrophically inept Truss government – would primarily release money to those who pay more in taxes, and the resources released will go in large part to rentiers.
The simple case for higher spending is made by Keynes:
Pyramid building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth …. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.
Higher spending doesn’t have to be financed point for point, and it doesn’t have to be financed by tax – there are lots of other options. However, it can be inflationary if it means that ‘too much money is chasing too few goods’.
A large tranche of what we call ‘public spending’, however, is something different. Benefits and pensions are transfer payments, a point I’ve made in previous blogs. Government doesn’t spend the money it allocates to pensioners; it passes them the money so that they can spend it. Taxation to fund cash transfers doesn’t withdraw money from the economy. When transfer payments are directly financed – that is, being transferred from someone else – they are presumptively neutral in economic terms. This is not inflationary, because the amount of money in the economy remains the same after the transfer. Any differences will depend on whether the recipients spend money differently from those who pay. That will be true to some degree, but it’s marginal: people on lower incomes spend proportionately more on food and energy, and save less.
Taxation is not the only way to finance public spending, but there are particular advantages in funding cash benefits this way. If transfer payments are funded by ‘helicopter money’ – like the extra £20 pw for Universal Credit during the pandemic – they’re politically vulnerable and implicitly temporary. Transfer payments financed by taxation, or by an equivalent mechanism such as national insurance, imply a more equal distribution of income than the same payments financed indirectly through creating credit. They will fund markets that function better for people on lower incomes. They do it without risking inflation. And they offer a better prospect of growth. The IMF have argued that a 1% increase in the income share of the lowest paid 20% produces growth of 0.38%, four and a half times the growth that comes from increasing the income share of the top 20%.