Financial Crises and Democracy, Part Two

We have several times emphasized the need for a large economic stimulus package to limit the extent and damage of the recession that we are almost certainly in already – a need recognized by economists from Nouriel Roubini to Larry Summers to Martin Feldstein. More recently, I speculated on the relationship between democratic politics and economic policy in a time of crisis. Well, as just about everyone in the world knows, things are coming to a head.

Whether we get a large economic stimulus package in the US – the economy whose health affects, for better or worse, just about everyone in the world – could very well depend on who is elected on Tuesday. For a summary of their short-term economic proposals, see here.

If Barack Obama is elected, we are likely to see a large stimulus package. It would probably include the measures that many economists are favoring, including extended unemployment benefits (and suspension of tax on those benefits), immediate cash aid to state governments, increased home heating cost aid, and infrastructure spending. These measures will have a direct impact on the economy by increasing spending now, while increasing it in ways that are necessary (keeping poor people alive) or that are productive long-term investments (infrastructure). Some of his other suggestions will have a more limited impact on the economy, such as a cash tax rebate, or are more or less irrelevant to the economy, such as relaxing the minimum distribution requirements for retirees.

With John McCain, we are not likely to see a stimulus package – or, more accurately, the package we see will be built around tax cuts that are not likely to have a direct economic impact. His proposals include: reducing taxes on retirement account withdrawals; increasing capital loss write-offs; reducing long-term capital gains tax rates; exempting unemployment benefits from taxes; also relaxing minimum distribution requirements; extending all of the Bush tax cuts; and reducing corporate tax rates. Except for the tax cut on unemployment benefits, these proposals suffer from the basic problem that undermined the last stimulus package this spring: in tough economic times, people take their tax rebates (or tax cuts, or cash you give them in any form) and stuff it under their mattresses, or pay down debt. McCain’s plan also includes the famous (or infamous) proposal for the government to buy up and refinance mortgages directly. (Obama favors increased loan modifications and legislation to eliminate some of the legal barriers to modifications.) But while that could potentially help homeowners and lenders, it doesn’t increase economic activity any.

(For an explanation of why different programs have different marginal impacts on GDP, see Menzie Chinn’s post.)

That said, given the way legislation is passed in Washington, the final package is likely to differ from either person’s proposals, whoever is elected. But the next major step that our government takes to combat the financial and economic crisis will depend directly on the outcome of Tuesday’s election.

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