Did the Fiscal Cliff Hurt the Economy?

Today’s jobs report was decidedly mediocre and unremarkable – the economy added 157,000 jobs in January. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also revised its November and December estimates up a decent bit as well. This seems to rebuke the idea that uncertainty surrounding the Fiscal Cliff held back the economy. After all, we continued to gain jobs at a similar pace as we had during the previous 10 months. The Fiscal Cliff didn’t seem to have a significant effect, right? That’s Matt Yglesias’s take:

With today’s jobs report out, it’s worth remembering that back during the lame duck session, the Fix the Debt crowd was constantly braying about the dire consequences of failing to reach a major budget deal. They said that not only would full implementation of the cliff be a Keynesian drag on the economy but also that fire and brimstone would rain down upon us if markets weren’t assured that Congress has a credible plan to tackle long-term fiscal challenges.

Well, Congress had no plan. They agreed to small tax hikes and a bit of new stimulus via unemployment insurance, randomly kicked the can on the sequester, did nothing to reform the tax code and nothing to settle entitlements. And everything’s … fine.

Not great, mind you. But a January jobs report showing normal growth, no bond market freakout, no interest rate spikes, and some nice upward revisions to data from the lame duck period. Uncertainty didn’t matter. Confidence didn’t matter. Strong fundamentals and decent monetary policy from the Federal Reserve have us on a track for O.K.-but-not-spectacular growth, and you should expect that to continue.

Everything is fine, but that doesn’t mean that the economy wouldn’t be better right now if Democrats and Republicans had come together and agreed on a big deal. Certainly, all the pundits screaming that the world would fall apart if we didn’t get a grand bargain were wrong. We are doing fine without a grand bargain. But that doesn’t mean the Fiscal Cliff didn’t harm the economy. Maybe we would’ve added 300,000 jobs in December and January if we reached a more comprehensive deal.

So, I disagree with Yglesias’s post that uncertainty and confidence didn’t matter. I think they did, even if just slightly, but it’s impossible to know how much they mattered without knowing what the economy would be like in an alternate universe where we had a major deal. Until then, it remains a mystery.


One thought on “Did the Fiscal Cliff Hurt the Economy?

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