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      ["title"]=>
      string(40) "Fiscal Federalism: An International View"
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    What is the appropriate balance of taxes and spending between the central government of a country and the subcentral governments--in the US, state and local government?

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    Countries vary, and there's no one-size-fits-all mode. But Kass Forman, Sean Dougherty, and Hansjörg Blöchliger provide an overview of how countries differ and some standard tradeoffs to consider in "Synthesising Good Practices in Fiscal Federalism Key recommendations from 15 years of country surveys" (OECD Economic Policy Paper #28, April 2020).   

    Here are a couple of figures to give some background on the underlying issues. On this figure, the horizontal axis is the share of spending done by subcentral governments, while the vertical axis is the share of taxes collected by subcentral governments. Being on the 45-degree line line would mean that these were the same. However, every country falls below the 45-degree line, which means that for every country, some of the revenues spent by subcentral governments are collected by the central government. 

     

    Its interesting to note the different models of fiscal federalism that prevail in various countries. At the far right, Canada is clearly an outlier, with nearly 70% of all government spending happening at the subnational level, and half of all taxes collected at the subnational level. Other countries where about half or more of government spending happens at the subnational level include the US, Sweden, Switzerland (CHE) and Denmark. 

    Mexico is an interesting case where 40% of government spending happens at the subnational level, but tax revenues collected at that level are very low. Germany (DEU) and Israel are countries with a substantial level of subnational spending that is also nearly matched by the level of subnational taxes--and thus a relatively low redistribution of revenue from central to subcentral governments. Many countries huddled in the bottom left of the figure are low both subnational spending and subnational taxes. 

    Here's a figure showing the change in these patterns across countries from 1995-2017. 

     

    The crossing point of the horizontal and the vertical lines means relatively little change: for example, the US had a small rise in the share of spending happening at the subnational level and a small drop in the share of revenues raised at the subnational level. 

    Some countries with a big rise in the share of spending happening at the subnational level include Spain (ESP), Belgium, and Sweden. Some countries with a big rise in the share of subnational taxes collected include Spain, Belgium, and Italy. Clearly, Spain stands out as a country that has been decentralizing both government revenue and spending. Conversely, Denmark (DNK) stands out as a country that has been decentralizing government spending, but centralizing the collection of tax revenue. Hungary and Netherlands stand out as countries that have moved toward centralizing their spending, and Hungary in particular seems to be both increasing subnational taxes while decreasing subnational spending. 

    What are the key tradeoffs here?  Forman, Dougherty, and Blöchliger write (citations omitted): 

    Fiscal federalism refers to the distribution of taxation and spending powers across levels of government. Through decentralisation, governments can bring public services closer to households and firms, allowing better adaptation to local preferences. However, decentralisation can also make intergovernmental fiscal frameworks more complex and risk reinforcing interregional inequality unless properly designed. Accordingly, several important trade-offs emerge from the devolution of tax and spending powers. ... 

    For example:  

    [D]ecentralised fiscal frameworks allow for catering to local preferences and needs, while more centralised frameworks help reap the benefits of scale. Another key trade-off derives from the effect of decentralisation on the cost of information to different levels of government. While greater decentralisation implies that sub-national governments can access more information about the needs of a constituency at lower cost, it simultaneously increases the informational distance between central and sub-national government. In turn, this may make information more costly from the perspective of the central government, impeding its co-ordination and monitoring functions.

    Decentralisation could also engender a costly misalignment of incentives. For example, a “common pool” problem may arise when decentralisation narrows the sub-national revenue base and raises the vertical fiscal gap. In this case, the necessary reliance on revenue sharing with central government to ensure SCG [subcentral government] fiscal capacity may also distort the cost/benefit analysis of sub-national governments—particularly in situations where an SCG realises a payoff without bearing the entirety of the associated cost. Rigid arrangements that entrench fiscal dependence on the central government may drive SCGs to manipulate tax-sharing agreements in order to increase their share while undermining their motivation to cultivate the local tax base. Therefore, the possible efficiency and equity gains from decentralisation are closely linked to mitigating the pitfalls of poorly designed revenue sharing.

    What does this mean in practical terms? Their survey of the cross-country research has a number of intriguing findings: 

    OECD research has found a broadly positive relationship between revenue decentralisation and growth, with spending decentralisation demonstrating a weaker effect ...

    [D]ecentralisation appears to reduce the gap between high and middle-income households but may leave low incomes behind, especially where jurisdictions have large tax autonomy ...

    In healthcare, research suggests costs fall and life expectancy rises with moderate decentralisation, but the opposite effects hold once decentralisation becomes excessive (Dougherty et al., 2019[11]). With respect to educational attainment, Lastra-Anadón and Mukherjee (2019[27]) find that a 10 percentage point increase in the sub-national revenue share improves PISA scores by 6 percentage points ...

    Decentralisation has also been linked to greater public investment, with a 10% point increase in decentralisation (as measured by both SCG spending and revenue share of government total) “lifting the share of public investment in total government spending from around 3% to more than 4% on average”. The investment driven by decentralisation appears to accrue principally to soft infrastructure, that is human capital as measured by education.

    In the US version of fiscal federalism, states and local governments face constraints on their borrowing, while the federal government does not. In the case of disruptions from a national recession or pandemic, when a surge of government borrowing is needed, as in the case of a pandemic, it will thus be natural for subnational governments to turn to the US federal government for support. However, it's worth remembering that in more normal times, having state and local governments bear a substantial responsibility for their there own tax and sending levels can have real benefits for accountability and government services. 

    A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.  

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    Fiscal Federalism: An International View

    Timothy Taylor
  • 2
    object(stdClass)#14491 (59) {
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      ["title"]=>
      string(61) "Interview with Larry Summers: China, Debt, Pandemic, and More"
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      string(57) "interview-with-larry-summers-china-debt-pandemic-and-more"
      ["introtext"]=>
      string(264) "

    Irwin Stelzer and Jeffrey Gedmin have a wide-ranging interview with Lawrence Summers in The American Interest (May 22, 2020, "How to Fix Globalization—for Detroit, Not Davos").

    " ["fulltext"]=> string(7828) "

    As always, Summers is his habitually and incorrigibly interesting and provocative self. Here re a few of many quotable remarks. 

    China

    In general, economic thinking has privileged efficiency over resilience, and it has been insufficiently concerned with the big downsides of efficiency. Going forward we will need more emphasis on “just in case” even at some cost in terms of “just in time.” More broadly our economic strategy will need to put less emphasis on short-term commercial advantage and pay more attention to long-run strategic advantage. ...

    At the broadest level, we need to craft a relationship with China from the principles of mutual respect and strategic reassurance, with rather less of the feigned affection that there has been in the past. We are not partners. We are not really friends. We are entities that find ourselves on the same small lifeboat in turbulent waters a long way from shore. We need to be pulling in unison if things are to work for either of us. If we can respect each other’s roles, respect our very substantial differences, confine our spheres of negotiation to those areas that are most important for cooperation, and represent the most fundamental interests of our societies, we can have a more successful co-evolution that we have had in recent years. ...

    Attitudes on Globalization

    Someone put it to me this way: First, we said that you are going to lose your job, but it was okay because when you got your new one, you were going to have higher wages thanks to lower prices because of international trade. Then we said that your company was going to move your job overseas, but it was really necessary because if we didn’t do that, then your company was going to be less competitive. Now we’re saying that we have to cut the taxes on those companies and cut the calculus class from your kid’s high school, because otherwise we won’t be able to attract companies to the United States, and you have to pay higher taxes and live with fewer services. At a certain point, people say, “This whole global thing doesn’t work for me,” and they have a point.

    So we need a global agenda that is about broad popular interests rather than about corporate freedom—that is, cooperation to assure that government purposes can be served and that global threats can be met. If we have an agenda like that, we can rebuild a constituency for global dialogue.

    Government Debt

    The deepest truth about debt is that you can’t evaluate borrowing without knowing what it’s going to be used for. Borrowing to invest in ways that earn a higher return than the cost of borrowing, and provide the wherewithal for debt service with an excess leftover, is generally a good and sustainable thing. Borrowing to finance consumption, leaving no return to cover debt service, is generally an unsustainable and problematic thing. ...

    I think we need to be very careful, with respect to the expectation that we now seem to be setting of having government cover all the losses associated with the COVID period. For the life of me, I cannot understand why grants should have been made to airlines to enable them to continue to function, rather than allowing their share values to be further depressed, and allowing those who would earn substantial premiums by taking risk on airline bonds to do so, accepting the consequences of an investment gone wrong.

    Looking towards an economy that is going to be very different than the one we had before COVID, we cannot aspire to maintain every job or every enterprise with a compensation program indefinitely. So as I look at the 30 percent of GDP deficit that we are running in Quarters Three and Four of Fiscal 2020, I don’t think that can be sustained over a multi-year period.

    Enforcing Existing Tax Laws for Those With High Incomes

    We could raise well over a trillion dollars over the next decade by simply enforcing the tax law that we have against people with high incomes. Natasha Sarin and I made this case and generated a revenue estimate some time ago. If we just restored the IRS to its previous size, judged relatively to the economy; if we moved past the massive injustice represented by the fact that you’re more likely to get audited if you receive the earned income tax credit (EITC) than if you earn $300,000 a year or more; if we made plausible use of information technology and the IRS got to where the credit card companies were 20 years ago, in terms of information technology-matching; and if we required of those who make shelter investments the kind of regular reporting that we require of cleaning women, we would raise, by my estimate, over a trillion dollars [over ten years]. Former IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti, who knows more about it than I do, thinks the figure is closer to $2 trillion. That’s where we should start.

    Coronavirus Priorities

    The real crime is not that we miscalibrated on some economic versus public health trade-off. The real crime is that we have not succeeded in generating far greater quantities of testing, far greater mechanisms for those 40 million unemployed people to do contract tracing, far more availability of well-fitting, comfortable, and safe masks, and that we’re under-investing in the development of new therapeutics and vaccines.

    When something costs $10 to $15 billion a day, you need to make decisions in new ways. We should not be waiting to see which of two tests works best. We should be producing both of them. We should not wait for vaccines to be proven before we start producing them. We should be producing all the plausible candidates. Remember, one week earlier in moving through this is worth a hundred billion dollars: two months’ worth of the annual defense budget.

    A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.

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    Interview with Larry Summers: China, Debt, Pandemic, and More

    Timothy Taylor
  • 3
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    David A. Price interviews Joshua Angrist in Econ Focus (First Quarter 2020, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, pp. 18-22).

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    Angrist is well-known for his creativity and diligence in thinking about research design: that is, don't just start by looking at a bunch of correlations between variables, but instead think about what you might be able to infer about causality from looking at the data in a specific way. A substantial share of his recent research has focused on education policy, and that's the main focus of the interview as well.

    To get a sense of what "research design" means in this area,  consider some examples. Imagine that you want to know if a student does better from attending a public charter school. If the school is oversubscribed and holds a lottery (as often happens), then you can compare those attending the charter with those who applied but were not chosen in the lottery. Does being surrounded by high-quality peers help your education? You can look at students who were accepted to institutions like Harvard and MIT but chose not to attend, and compare them with the students that were accepted and did choose to attend. Of course, these kinds of comparisons have to be done with appropriate statistical consideration. But their results are much more plausibly interpreted as causal, not just as a set of correlations. Here are some comments from Angrist in the interview that caught my eye.

    Peer Effects in High School? 

    I think people are easily fooled by peer effects. Parag, Atila Abdulkadiroglu, and I call it "the elite illusion." We made that the title of a paper. I think it's a pervasive phenomenon. You look at the Boston Latin School, or if you live in Northern Virginia, there's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. And in New York, you have Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science and Stuyvesant.

    And so people say, "Look at those awesome children, look how well they did." Well, they wouldn't get into the selective school if they weren't awesome, but that's distinct from the question of whether there's a causal effect. When you actually drill down and do a credible comparison of students who are just above and just below the cutoff, you find out that elite performance is indeed illusory, an artifact of selection. The kids who go to those schools do well because they were already doing well when they got in, but there's no effect from exposure to higher-achieving peers.

    How Much Does Attending a Selective College Matter? 

    I teach undergrad and grad econometrics, and one of my favorite examples for teaching regression is a paper by Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale that looks at the effects of going to a more selective college. It turns out that if you got into MIT or Harvard, it actually doesn't matter where you go. Alan and Stacy showed that in two very clever, well-controlled studies. And Jack Mountjoy, in a paper with Brent Hickman, just replicated that for a much larger sample. There isn't any earnings advantage from going to a more selective school once you control for the selection bias. So there's also an elite illusion at the college level, which I think is more important to upper-income families, because they're desperate for their kids to go to the top schools. So desperate, in fact, that a few commit criminal fraud to get their kids into more selective schools.

    Charter Schools and Takeovers

    The most common charter model is what we call a startup — somebody decides they want to start a charter school and admits kids by lottery. But an alternative model is the takeover. Every state has an accountability system with standards that require schools to meet certain criteria. When they fail to meet these standards, they're at risk of intervention by the state. Some states, including Massachusetts, have an intervention that involves the public school essentially being taken over by an outside operator. Boston had takeovers. And New Orleans is actually an all-charter district now, but it moved to that as individual schools were being taken over by charter operators.

    That's good for research, because you can look at schools that are struggling just as much but are not taken over or are not yet taken over and use them as a counterfactual. The reason that's important is that people say kids who apply to the startups are self-selected and so they're sort of primed to gain from the charter treatment. But the way the takeover model works in Boston and New Orleans is that the outside operator inherits not only the building, but also the existing enrollment. So they can't cherry-pick applicants. What we show is that successful charter management organizations that run successful startups also succeed in takeover scenarios.

    Angrist has developed the knack of looking for these ways of interpreting a given data set, sometimes called "natural experiments." For those trying to find such examples as a basis for their own research, he says: 

    One thing I learned is that empiricists should work on stuff that's nearby. Then you can have some visibility into what's unique and try to get on to projects that other people can't do. This is particularly true for empiricists who are working outside the United States. There's a temptation to just mimic whatever the Americans and British are doing. I think a better strategy is to say, "Well, what's special and interesting about where I am?"

    Finally, as a bit of a side note, I was intrigued by Angrist's neutral-to-negative take on the potential for machine learning in econometrics:

    I just wrote a paper about machine learning applications in labor economics with my former student Brigham Frandsen. Machine learning is a good example of a kind of empiricism that's running way ahead of theory. We have a fairly negative take on it. We show that a lot of machine learning tools that are very popular now, both in economics and in the wider world of data science, don't translate well to econometric applications and that some of our stalwarts — regression and two-stage least squares — are better. But that's an area of ongoing research, and it's rapidly evolving. There are plenty of questions there. Some of them are theoretical, and I won't be answering those questions, but some are practical: whether there's any value added from this new toolkit. So far, I'm skeptical.

    Josh has written for the Journal of Economic Perspectives a few times. Interested readers might want to follow up with:

    A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.

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    Interview with Joshua Angrist: Education Policy and Causality Questions

    Timothy Taylor
  • 4
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    The promise of freedom without responsibility is, in reality, slavery without escape. We think we do what we want when, in reality, we do what we are told.

    " ["fulltext"]=> string(1684) "

    There Is No Equality Without Economic Freedom

    An interventionist government’s promise of equality is the recipe for stagnation because governments can only equalize down. They can only make the rich poorer, never the poor richer, thus weakening everyone.

    Defending free will, individual initiative, and freedom does not mean that we disregard society. Society is a conscious, personal choice by which we bring together our individual needs and purposes, driven by personal initiative, and choose to invest in a way to improve our lives. This ultimately delivers better results for the vast majority.

    Society doesn’t strive to make people the same, requiring us to surrender our individual rights. Society is not created to make everyone equal, but to make each of us able to achieve our individual best.

    Society and free will are not enemies. Society and absolute power are.

    A version of this article first appeared here

     

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We think we do what we want when, in reality, we do what we are told." 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    There Is No Equality Without Economic Freedom

    Daniel Lacalle
  • 5
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    Douglas Clement at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve offers one of his characteristically excellent interviews, this one with Emi Nakamura, titled "On price dynamics, monetary policy, and this `scary moment in history'” (May 6, 2020, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis). Here are a few of Nakamura's comments that caught my eye, but there's much more in the full interview.

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    On the current macroeconomic situation

    It’s a scary moment in history. I thought the Great Recession that started in 2007 was going to be the big macroeconomic event of my lifetime, but here we are again, little more than a decade later. ... More than other recessions, this particular episode feels like it fits into the classic macroeconomic framework of dividing things into “shocks” and “propagation”—mainly because in this case, it’s blindingly clear what the shock is and that it is completely unrelated to other forces in the economy. In the financial crisis, there was much more of a question as to whether things were building up in the previous decade—such as debt and a housing bubble—that eventually came to a head in the crisis. But here that’s clearly not the case.

    Price rigidity at times of macroeconomic adjustment

    You might think that it’s very easy to go out there and figure out how much rigidity there is in prices. But the reality was that at least until 20 years ago, it was pretty hard to get broad-based price data. In principle, you could go into any store and see what the prices were, but the data just weren’t available to researchers tabulated in a systematic way. ...

    Once macroeconomists started looking at data for this broad cross section of goods, it was obvious that pricing behavior was a lot more complicated in the real world than had been assumed. If you look at, say, soft drink prices, they change all the time. But the question macroeconomists want to answer is more nuanced. We know that Coke and Pepsi go on sale a lot. But is that really a response to macroeconomic phenomena, or is that something that is, in some sense, on autopilot or preprogrammed? Another question is: When you see a price change, is it a response, in some sense, to macroeconomic conditions? We found that, often, the price is simply going back to exactly the same price as before the sale. That suggests that the responsiveness to macroeconomic conditions associated with these sales was fairly limited. ... 

    One of the things that’s been very striking to me in the recent period of the COVID-19 crisis is that even with incredible runs on grocery products, when I order my online groceries, there are still things on sale. Even with a shock as big as the COVID shock, my guess is that these things take time to adjust. ... he COVID-19 crisis can be viewed as a prime example of the kind of negative productivity shock that neoclassical economists have traditionally focused on. But an economy with price rigidity responds much less efficiently to that kind of an adverse shock than if prices and wages were continuously adjusting in an optimal way.

    What's does the market learn from Fed announcements of changes in monetary policy? 

    The basic challenge in estimating the effects of monetary policy is that most monetary policy announcements happen for a reason. For example, the Fed has just lowered interest rates by a historic amount. Obviously, this was not a random event. It happened because of this massively negative economic news. When you’re trying to estimate the consequences of a monetary policy shock, the big challenge is that you don’t really have randomized experiments, so establishing causality is difficult.

    Looking at interest rate movements at the exact time of monetary policy announcements is a way of estimating the pure effect of the monetary policy action. ...  Intuitively, we’re trying to get as close as possible to a randomized experiment. Before the monetary policy announcement, people already know if, say, negative news has come out about the economy.The only new thing that they’re learning in these 30 minutes of the [time window around the monetary policy] announcement is how the Fed actually chooses to respond. Perhaps the Fed interprets the data a little bit more optimistically or pessimistically than the private sector. Perhaps their outlook is a little more hawkish on inflation. Those are the things that market participants are learning about at the time of the announcement. The idea is to isolate the effects of the monetary policy announcement from the effects of all the macroeconomic news that preceded it. Of course, you have to have very high-frequency data to do this, and most of this comes from financial markets. ...

    The results completely surprised us. The conventional view of monetary policy is that if the Fed unexpectedly lowers interest rates, this will increase expected inflation. But we found that this response was extremely muted, particularly in the short run. The financial markets seemed to believe in a hyper hyper-Keynesian view of the economy. Even in response to a significant expansionary monetary shock, there was very little response priced into bond markets of a change in expected inflation. ... 

    But, then, we were presenting the paper in England, and I recall that Marco Bassetto asked us to run one more regression looking at how forecasts by professional forecasters of GDP growth responded to monetary shocks. The conventional view would be that an expansionary monetary policy shock would yield forecasts of higher growth. When we ran the regression, the results actually went in the opposite direction from what we were expecting! An expansionary monetary shock was actually associated with a decrease in growth expectations, not the reverse! ... When Jay Powell or Janet Yellen or Ben Bernanke says, for example, “The economy is really in a crisis. We think we need to lower interest rates” ... perhaps the private sector thinks they can learn something about the fundamentals of the economy from the Fed’s announcements. This can explain why a big, unexpected reduction in interest rates could actually have a negative, as opposed to a positive, effect on those expectations.

    The Plucking Model of Unemployment

    A feature emphasized by Milton Friedman is that the unemployment rate doesn’t really look like a series that fluctuates symmetrically around an equilibrium “natural rate” of unemployment. It looks more like the “natural rate” is a lower bound on unemployment and that unemployment periodically gets “plucked” upward from this level by adverse shocks. Certainly, the current recession feels like an example of this phenomenon.

    Another thing we emphasize is that if you look at the unemployment series, it appears incredibly smooth and persistent. When unemployment starts to rise, on average, it takes a long time to get back to where it was before. This is something that isn’t well explained by the current generation of macroeconomic models of unemployment, but it’s clearly front and center in terms of many economists’ thinking about the policy responses [to COVID-19]. A lot of the policy discussions have to do with trying to preserve links between workers and firms, and my sense is the goal here is to avoid the kind of persistent changes in unemployment that we’ve seen in other recessions.

    For more on Nakamura and her work, the Journal of Economic Perspectives has a couple of articles to offer.

    A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist

     
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    Interview with Emi Nakamura: Price Dynamics, Monetary and Fiscal, and COVID-19 Adjustments

    Timothy Taylor

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