How Government Macroeconomic Policy Choices Can Shift AD
Government spending is one component of AD. Thus, higher government spending will cause AD to shift to the right, as in Figure (a), while lower government spending will cause AD to shift to the left, as in Figure (b). For example, in the United States, government spending declined by 3.2% of GDP during the 1990s, from 21% of GDP in 1991, and to 17.8% of GDP in 1998. However, from 2005 to 2009, the peak of the Great Recession, government spending increased from 19% of GDP to 21.4% of GDP. If changes of a few percentage points of GDP seem small to you, remember that since GDP was about $14.4 trillion in 2009, a seemingly small change of 2% of GDP is equal to close to $300 billion.
Tax policy can affect consumption and investment spending, too. Tax cuts for individuals will tend to increase consumption demand, while tax increases will tend to diminish it. Tax policy can also pump up investment demand by offering lower tax rates for corporations or tax reductions that benefit specific kinds of investment. Shifting C or I will shift the AD curve as a whole.
During a recession, when unemployment is high and many businesses are suffering low profits or even losses, the U.S. Congress often passes tax cuts. During the 2001 recession, for example, the U.S. Congress enacted a tax cut into law. At such times, the political rhetoric often focuses on how people experiencing hard times need relief from taxes. The aggregate supply and aggregate demand framework, however, offers a complementary rationale, as Figure illustrates. The original equilibrium during a recession is at point E0, relatively far from the full employment level of output. The tax cut, by increasing consumption, shifts the AD curve to the right. At the new equilibrium (E1), real GDP rises and unemployment falls and, because in this diagram the economy has not yet reached its potential or full employment level of GDP, any rise in the price level remains muted. Read the following Clear It Up feature to consider the question of whether economists favor tax cuts or oppose them.
Do economists favor tax cuts or oppose them?
One of the most fundamental divisions in American politics over the last few decades has been between those who believe that the government should cut taxes substantially and those who disagree. Ronald Reagan rode into the presidency in 1980 partly because of his promise, soon carried out, to enact a substantial tax cut. George Bush lost his bid for reelection against Bill Clinton in 1992 partly because he had broken his 1988 promise: “Read my lips! No new taxes!” In the 2000 presidential election, both George W. Bush and Al Gore advocated substantial tax cuts and Bush succeeded in pushing a tax cut package through Congress early in 2001. More recently in 2017, Donald Trump has pushed for tax cuts to stimulate the economy. Disputes over tax cuts often ignite at the state and local level as well.
What side do economists take? Do they support broad tax cuts or oppose them? The answer, unsatisfying to zealots on both sides, is that it depends. One issue is whether equally large government spending cuts accompany the tax cuts. Economists differ, as does any broad cross-section of the public, on how large government spending should be and what programs the government might cut back. A second issue, more relevant to the discussion in this chapter, concerns how close the economy is to the full employment output level. In a recession, when the AD and AS curves intersect far below the full employment level, tax cuts can make sense as a way of shifting AD to the right. However, when the economy is already performing extremely well, tax cuts may shift AD so far to the right as to generate inflationary pressures, with little gain to GDP.
With the AD/AS framework in mind, many economists might readily believe that the 1981 Reagan tax cuts, which took effect just after two serious recessions, were beneficial economic policy. Similarly, Congress enacted the 2001 Bush tax cuts and the 2009 Obama tax cuts during recessions. However, some of the same economists who favor tax cuts during recession would be much more dubious about identical tax cuts at a time the economy is performing well and cyclical unemployment is low.
Government spending and tax rate changes can be useful tools to affect aggregate demand. We will discuss these in greater detail in the Government Budgets and Fiscal Policy chapter and The Impacts of Government Borrowing. Other policy tools can shift the aggregate demand curve as well. For example, as we will discus in the Monetary Policy and Bank Regulation chapter, the Federal Reserve can affect interest rates and credit availability. Higher interest rates tend to discourage borrowing and thus reduce both household spending on big-ticket items like houses and cars and investment spending by business. Conversely, lower interest rates will stimulate consumption and investment demand. Interest rates can also affect exchange rates, which in turn will have effects on the export and import components of aggregate demand.
Clarifying the details of these alternative policies and how they affect the components of aggregate demand can wait for The Keynesian Perspective chapter. Here, the key lesson is that a shift of the aggregate demand curve to the right leads to a greater real GDP and to upward pressure on the price level. Conversely, a shift of aggregate demand to the left leads to a lower real GDP and a lower price level. Whether these changes in output and price level are relatively large or relatively small, and how the change in equilibrium relates to potential GDP, depends on whether the shift in the AD curve is happening in the AS curve's relatively flat or relatively steep portion.