Federalism: Objectively Pro-Recessions
I keep meaning to link to James Surowiecki's excellent take on the problems with fiscal federalism, but keep forgetting. So I'm just going to do it. Before I forget. No excuses. Here we go!
If you came up with a list of obstacles to economic recovery in this country, it would include all the usual suspects—our still weak banking system, falling house prices, overindebted consumers, cautious companies. But here are fifty culprits you might not have thought of: the states. Federalism, often described as one of the great strengths of the American system, has become a serious impediment to reversing the downturn.
It’s easy enough, of course, to mock state governments nowadays, what with California issuing I.O.U.s to pay its bills and New York’s statehouse becoming the site of palace coups and senatorial sit-ins. But the real problem isn’t the fecklessness of local politicians. It’s the ordinary way in which state governments go about their business.
Think about the $787-billion federal stimulus package. It’s built on the idea that during serious economic downturns the government can use spending increases and tax cuts to counteract the effects of consumers who are cutting back on spending and businesses that are cutting back on investment. So fiscal policy at the national level is countercyclical: as the economy shrinks, government expands.
At the state level, though, the opposite is happening. Nearly every state government is required to balance its budget. When times are bad, jobs vanish, sales plummet, investment declines, and tax revenues fall precipitously—in New York, for instance, state revenues in April and May were down thirty-six per cent from a year earlier. So states have to raise taxes or cut spending, or both, and that’s precisely what they’re doing: states from New Jersey to Oregon have raised taxes in the past year, while significant budget cuts have become routine and are likely to get only deeper in the year ahead. The states’ fiscal policy, then, is procyclical: it’s amplifying the effects of the downturn, instead of mitigating them. Even as the federal government is pouring money into the economy, state governments are effectively taking it out. It’s a push-me, pull-you approach to fighting the recession.
Good stuff, huh? It's also why one of the best things that Congress could do to protect states from not only this recession, but also the next recession, is to make Medicaid a federal program, rather than an inane and complicated partnership between the Feds and the states.
July 24, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Economic Policy , Solutions
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