We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.
One dissenter was economist Milton Friedman. His research had led him to conclude that consumer spending was less a function of liquidity than something he called “permanent income.” Friedman observed that when workers lost their jobs, they didn’t immediately cut back on spending. They borrowed or drew down savings to maintain spending, in the expectation of finding a new job shortly. Conversely, consumers didn’t immediately spend windfalls. They kept spending on an even keel until they achieved a promotion at work, or other increase in their long-term income expectations.
Thus Friedman predicted that the $100 to $200 checks disbursed by the Treasury Department in the spring of 1975 would have a minimal impact on spending, because they did not alter peoples’ permanent income. Most likely, people would save the money or pay down debt, which is the same thing. Very little of the rebate would cause consumers to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise have bought in the near term.
Subsequent studies by MIT economists Franco Modigliani and Charles Steindel, and Alan Blinder of Princeton, showed that Friedman’s prediction was correct. The 1975 rebate had very little impact on spending and much less than a permanent tax cut — which would change peoples’ concept of their permanent income — of similar magnitude.
As I noted yesterday, if we want to change people’s behavior in an economicaly beneficial way, we need to give them reason to believe a change will be lasting: permanent (or at least long-lasting) tax cuts will be far more beneficial than a one-time rebate.