“May you live in interesting times,” goes an old saying—usually meant as a curse. When it comes to economics, “interesting” usually means the sky is falling.
Inflation reached 7% at the end of 2021, a rate not seen in 40 years. The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet more than doubled to $8.8 trillion since early 2020. And Uncle Sam’s fiscal house is in shambles. The 2021 budget deficit was almost $2.8 trillion, putting the national debt at $28.5 trillion—nearly 130% of U.S. gross domestic product.
To call this imprudent would be a massive understatement. We need fiscal and monetary rules now.
Money mischief and fiscal follies are intimately related. This isn’t because deficit spending causes inflation—things aren’t that simple. Instead, profligate spending and careless money-printing reinforce each other.
When politicians and bureaucrats have too much leeway, they pursue short-run benefits at the expense of long-run viability. Whether it’s easy money from the Fed or stimulus checks from Congress, papering over unsustainable financial practices is easier than enacting sustainable reforms. To improve Americans’ livelihood, we must break the cycle. Because policymakers have demonstrated they can’t be trusted with discretion, it’s time to give binding rules a try. We can’t reform fiscal or monetary policy alone. Economic flourishing for Americans depends on tackling both.
In the past two years, the Fed purchased more than $3.3 trillion in government debt. Over that same period, Uncle Sam’s deficit totaled almost $6 trillion. That means our central bank indirectly covered more than half of the federal government’s fiscal splurge. Also, Congress authorized spending of roughly $7 trillion since the pandemic started. Even the latest $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, sold to Americans as a “stimulus,” merely promoted more government. These programs contributed to fewer jobs added last year than the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline. All that wasteful spending drags down the economy.
This is worryingly close to what economists call “fiscal dominance”—monetary policymakers paving the way for spending binges with cheap liquidity. Adam Smith, the godfather of economics, wrote about the continuous cycle of deficits, debt accumulation, and currency debasement that ruins nations. We should work diligently and quickly to ensure the U.S. doesn’t follow.
The solution is a rules-based approach for fiscal and monetary policies. We need strong guardrails around runaway spending and money-printing. A rules-based framework can ensure fiscal and monetary policies work better, both independently and with each other.
For example, we should consider a spending limit that covers the entire budget, capping spending increases at population growth plus inflation. This essentially freezes per capita government spending. By limiting total expenditures, we can minimize the burden on current and future taxpayers. Had this been in place from 2002 to 2021, the cumulative effect on the budget would be a net surplus (debt decline) of $2.8 trillion. This is in stark contrast to the $19.8 trillion in net debt we actually got.
Cutting the national debt means the Fed would have fewer assets to purchase in its open market operations, thereby reducing its ability to manipulate markets and the overall economy. It could then focus on what it can control: price stability. A rule should help achieve this. The Fed drifted off course by needlessly broadening its inflation rule in August 2020. The Fed’s mandate currently includes price stability, maximum employment, and moderate interest rates. But the second and third of these are beyond the competence of central bankers. It’s time to focus the Fed on controlling the dollar’s value.
Congress and the Fed harmed the vibrancy and robustness of the U.S. economy by their poor decisions. Unfortunately, there’s been a bipartisan consensus for irresponsible fiscal and monetary policies in recent years. It’s time for this to change. We need rules-based fiscal and monetary policy to get our economic affairs in order and leave post-pandemic malaise behind for good.