NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Optimal Automatic Stabilizers

Alisdair McKay, Ricardo Reis

NBER Working Paper No. 22359
Issued in June 2016
NBER Program(s):Economic Fluctuations and Growth, Monetary Economics, Public Economics

Should the generosity of unemployment benefits and the progressivity of income taxes depend on the presence of business cycles? This paper proposes a tractable model where there is a role for social insurance against uninsurable shocks to income and unemployment, as well as inefficient business cycles driven by aggregate shocks through matching frictions and nominal rigidities. We derive an augmented Baily-Chetty formula showing that the optimal generosity and progressivity depend on a macroeconomic stabilization term. Using a series of analytical examples, we show that this term typically pushes for an increase in generosity and progressivity as long as slack is more responsive to social programs in recessions. A calibration to the U.S. economy shows that taking concerns for macroeconomic stabilization into account raises the optimal unemployment benefits replacement rate by 13 percentage points but has a negligible impact on the optimal progressivity of the income tax. More generally, the role of social insurance programs as automatic stabilizers affects their optimal design.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w22359

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