Almost three decades ago, Herbert Stein, the former Chairman of Nixon's Council of Economic Advisors, lamented that the United States had no long-run budget policy—no policy for the size of deficits and for the rate of growth of the public debt over a period of years. He pointed out that Congress makes annual budget decisions that are wholly inconsistent with professed long-term goals, hoping that something will happen before a point of crisis is reached. He might have added that when the crisis does arrive, it is resolved by a combination of hasty, one-off measures; the making of promises that are rarely kept; and the appointment of special commissions whose advice is rarely heeded.
What Stein said then remains true today. The rational way out of this destructive cycle of irresponsibility and crisis is to establish long-term fiscal policy rules and stick to them. There is at least a vague recognition among some members of Congress of the need to do so. The problem is that the rules they actually propose are primitive and counterproductive. The debt ceiling itself, which Congress routinely sets at levels that are inconsistent with its own spending and taxing decisions, is one such rule. The balanced budget amendment championed by many fiscal conservatives is also deeply flawed, for reasons detailed in this earlier post.
Instead of these "dumb" fiscal policy rules, we need to be looking at what can be learned from countries that have faced the same problems and introduced smarter rules to overcome them. Last week's post examined how intelligent budget rules have helped Chile prosper. Today we look at the smart fiscal rules that have put Sweden's budget on a sustainable path and made that country's economy one of the strongest in Europe. READ MORE>>>