Fiscal Policy in the 1960s and 1970s

President Johnson Working In White House
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By the 1960s, policy-makers seemed wedded to Keynesian theories. But in retrospect, most Americans agree, the government then made a series of mistakes in the economic policy arena that eventually led to a reexamination of fiscal policy. After enacting a tax cut in 1964 to stimulate economic growth and reduce unemployment, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) and Congress launched a series of expensive domestic spending programs designed to alleviate poverty.

Johnson also increased military spending to pay for American involvement in the Vietnam War. These large government programs, combined with strong consumer spending, pushed the demand for goods and services beyond what the economy could produce. Wages and prices started rising. Soon, rising wages and prices fed each other in an ever-rising cycle. Such an overall increase in prices is known as inflation.

Keynes had argued that during such periods of excess demand, the government should reduce spending or raise taxes to avert inflation. But anti-inflation fiscal policies are difficult to sell politically, and the government resisted shifting to them. Then, in the early 1970s, the nation was hit by a sharp rise in international oil and food prices. This posed an acute dilemma for policy-makers. The conventional anti-inflation strategy would be to restrain demand by cutting federal spending or raising taxes.

But this would have drained income from an economy already suffering from higher oil prices. The result would have been a sharp rise in unemployment. If policy-makers chose to counter the loss of income caused by rising oil prices, however, they would have had to increase spending or cut taxes. Since neither policy could increase the supply of oil or food, however, boosting demand without changing supply would merely mean higher prices.

President Jimmy Carter (1976 - 1980) sought to resolve the dilemma with a two-pronged strategy. He geared fiscal policy toward fighting unemployment, allowing the federal deficit to swell and establishing countercyclical jobs programs for the unemployed. To fight inflation, he established a program of voluntary wage and price controls. Neither element of this strategy worked well. By the end of the 1970s, the nation suffered both high unemployment and high inflation.

While many Americans saw this "stagflation" as evidence that Keynesian economics did not work, another factor further reduced the government's ability to use fiscal policy to manage the economy. Deficits now seemed to be a permanent part of the fiscal scene. Deficits had emerged as a concern during the stagnant 1970s. Then, in the 1980s, they grew further as President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) pursued a program of tax cuts and increased military spending. By 1986, the deficit had swelled to $221,000 million, or more than 22 percent of total federal spending. Now, even if the government wanted to pursue spending or tax policies to bolster demand, the deficit made such a strategy unthinkable.

 

This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.