Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The role of independent fiscal watchdogs

As discussed a few days ago, politicians have a rational tendency to lie. One remedy against this is to improve information. One area where political lies hurt the most is when politicians distort (or blatantly ignore) the consequences of their actions or policy proposals. The starkest recent examples come from the second Bush Administration with the Iraq war ("it pays for itself with Iraqi oil") and the prescription-drug plan for the elderly. How do you improve the information of the public in this regard? And you may also want to inform politicians as well as they may be ignorant or easily influenced (many are lawyers after all, and certainly not economists who can gain their own insights). Finally, you want to redress short-sighted politicians and find a way to commit them to long-term policies and outcomes. One way is to institute some fiscal watchdogs. There are plenty of think tanks willing to take this role, but they usually have some vested interests in the debate and rely on funds from interest groups to function. The fiscal watchdog thus needs to be independently funded.

Lars Calmfors makes the case for independent fiscal watchdogs in a report to the Prime Minister of Finland. He forcefully argues that the rules vs. discretion problem of central banks is just as valid for fiscal authorities, if not more as political terms are typically shorter than those of central bank governors. The ideal would be to have an independent fiscal authority, but this is clearly not feasible, so an independent fiscal watchdog is the next best solution. The paper focuses on the example of the Swedish Fiscal Policy Council, but there are others. They work as long as people are willing to listen to them. One example where it does not seem to work as well as before in the United States, where the Congressional Budget Office is not viewed as being credible due to the general attitude against scientific evidence in the country, and due to partisan bickering. But beyond criticizing fiscal policy, fiscal watchdogs can help with the formulation and enforcement of fiscal rules, like the German one that forces the government to act once deficits exceed some level.

In any case, this paper is a good read for anybody who is worried about the unsustainability of fiscal practices and who wants politicians to think harder about the consequences of their actions.

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