In a depressed economy, with short-term nominal interest rates at their zero lower bound, ample cyclical unemployment, and excess capacity, increased government purchases would be neither offset by the monetary authority raising interest rates nor neutralized by supply-side bottlenecks. Then even a small amount of hysteresis—even a small shadow cast on future potential output by the cyclical downturn—means, by simple arithmetic, that expansionary fiscal policy is likely to be self-financing. Even if it is not, it is highly likely to pass the sensible benefit-cost test of raising the present value of future potential output. Thus, at the zero bound, where the central bank cannot or will not but in any event does not perform its full role in stabilization policy, fiscal policy has the stabilization policy mission that others have convincingly argued it lacks in normal times. Whereas many economists have assumed that the path of potential output is invariant to even a deep and prolonged downturn, the available evidence raises a strong fear that hysteresis is indeed a factor. Although nothing in our analysis calls into question the importance of sustainable fiscal policies, it strongly suggests the need for caution regarding the pace of fiscal consolidation.


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