Dan Gross: When Deficits are a Good Sign

Dan Gross has been one of the more bullish voices in the econoblogosphere this spring/summer, and his latest piece for Slate is sure to be controversial.  In it, he explains how deficits and surpluses show up out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly…

The fiscal 2010 deficit—$1 trillion and counting—is an encouraging sign.

Let me explain. Federal tax revenues are highly leveraged to economic growth and to the performance of markets, corporations, and rich people. This means they can be volatile. When markets and profits boom, capital gains taxes, payroll and income taxes, and corporate income taxes flow like a mighty stream. As a result, it’s not uncommon for tax receipts to rise 6 percent or 7 percent in a year when the economy grows by 3 percent. This volatility works to the downside, too. When the economy contracts and markets crash, capital gains and corporate income tax revenues dry up. For example, corporate income taxes (click here and scroll down to Page 30) fell from $370 billion in fiscal 2007 to $304 billion in fiscal 2008 (down 18 percent), and then plunged to $138 billion in fiscal 2009 (down 55 percent). In fiscal 2009, a period in which the economy shrunk about 2.6 percent, government receipts plummeted 16 percent, from $2.5 trillion to $2.1 trillion. To aggravate matters, some government spending is countercyclical. That means that in good times, when tax receipts are high, less money is spent on stimulus and social welfare benefits. In bad times, when tax receipts are ebbing, more money goes out the door. And that’s why surpluses and deficits can materialize out of nowhere.

He goes on to point out how the deficit for 2009 came in below expectations as a result of asset price refaltion and other factors.  Without being a fan of long-term entitlements and debt, he makes an interesting case based on the numbers for a toning down of the deficit-hawk rhetoric.

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