United States - Economy Government's Role in the Economy
Government's role in the economy
While consumers and producers make most decisions that mold the economy, government activities have a powerful effect on the U.S. economy in at least four areas.
Stabilization and Growth. Perhaps most importantly, the federal government guides the overall pace of economic activity, attempting to maintain steady growth, high levels of employment, and price stability. By adjusting spending and tax rates (fiscal policy) or managing the money supply and controlling the use of credit (monetary policy), it can slow down or speed up the economy's rate of growth -- in the process, affecting the level of prices and employment.
For many years following the Great Depression of the 1930s, recessions -- periods of slow economic growth and high unemployment -- were viewed as the greatest of economic threats. When the danger of recession appeared most serious, government sought to strengthen the economy by spending heavily itself or cutting taxes so that consumers would spend more, and by fostering rapid growth in the money supply, which also encouraged more spending. In the 1970s, major price increases, particularly for energy, created a strong fear of inflation -- increases in the overall level of prices. As a result, government leaders came to concentrate more on controlling inflation than on combating recession by limiting spending, resisting tax cuts, and reining in growth in the money supply.
Ideas about the best tools for stabilizing the economy changed substantially between the 1960s and the 1990s. In the 1960s, government had great faith in fiscal policy -- manipulation of government revenues to influence the economy. Since spending and taxes are controlled by the president and the Congress, these elected officials played a leading role in directing the economy. A period of high inflation, high unemployment, and huge government deficits weakened confidence in fiscal policy as a tool for regulating the overall pace of economic activity. Instead, monetary policy -- controlling the nation's money supply through such devices as interest rates -- assumed growing prominence. Monetary policy is directed by the nation's central bank, known as the Federal Reserve Board, with considerable independence from the president and the Congress..
Regulation and Control. The U.S. federal government regulates private enterprise in numerous ways. Regulation falls into two general categories. Economic regulation seeks, either directly or indirectly, to control prices. Traditionally, the government has sought to prevent monopolies such as electric utilities from raising prices beyond the level that would ensure them reasonable profits. At times, the government has extended economic control to other kinds of industries as well. In the years following the Great Depression, it devised a complex system to stabilize prices for agricultural goods, which tend to fluctuate wildly in response to rapidly changing supply and demand. A number of other industries -- trucking and, later, airlines -- successfully sought regulation themselves to limit what they considered harmful price-cutting.
Another form of economic regulation, antitrust law, seeks to strengthen market forces so that direct regulation is unnecessary. The government -- and, sometimes, private parties -- have used antitrust law to prohibit practices or mergers that would unduly limit competition.
Government also exercises control over private companies to achieve social goals, such as protecting the public's health and safety or maintaining a clean and healthy environment. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans harmful drugs, for example; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration protects workers from hazards they may encounter in their jobs; and the Environmental Protection Agency seeks to control water and air pollution.
American attitudes about regulation changed substantially during the final three decades of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1970s, policy-makers grew increasingly concerned that economic regulation protected inefficient companies at the expense of consumers in industries such as airlines and trucking. At the same time, technological changes spawned new competitors in some industries, such as telecommunications, that once were considered natural monopolies. Both developments led to a succession of laws easing regulation.
While leaders of both political parties generally favored economic deregulation during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, there was less agreement concerning regulations designed to achieve social goals. Social regulation had assumed growing importance in the years following the Depression and World War II, and again in the 1960s and 1970s. But during the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, the government relaxed rules to protect workers, consumers, and the environment, arguing that regulation interfered with free enterprise, increased the costs of doing business, and thus contributed to inflation. Still, many Americans continued to voice concerns about specific events or trends, prompting the government to issue new regulations in some areas, including environmental protection.
Some citizens, meanwhile, have turned to the courts when they feel their elected officials are not addressing certain issues quickly or strongly enough. For instance, in the 1990s, individuals, and eventually government itself, sued tobacco companies over the health risks of cigarette smoking. A large financial settlement provided states with long-term payments to cover medical costs to treat smoking-related illnesses.
Direct Services. Each level of government provides many direct services. The federal government, for example, is responsible for national defense, backs research that often leads to the development of new products, conducts space exploration, and runs numerous programs designed to help workers develop workplace skills and find jobs. Government spending has a significant effect on local and regional economies -- and even on the overall pace of economic activity.
State governments, meanwhile, are responsible for the construction and maintenance of most highways. State, county, or city governments play the leading role in financing and operating public schools. Local governments are primarily responsible for police and fire protection. Government spending in each of these areas can also affect local and regional economies, although federal decisions generally have the greatest economic impact.
Overall, federal, state, and local spending accounted for almost 18 percent of gross domestic product in 1997.
Direct Assistance. Government also provides many kinds of help to businesses and individuals. It offers low-interest loans and technical assistance to small businesses, and it provides loans to help students attend college. Government-sponsored enterprises buy home mortgages from lenders and turn them into securities that can be bought and sold by investors, thereby encouraging home lending. Government also actively promotes exports and seeks to prevent foreign countries from maintaining trade barriers that restrict imports.
Government supports individuals who cannot adequately care for themselves. Social Security, which is financed by a tax on employers and employees, accounts for the largest portion of Americans' retirement income. The Medicare program pays for many of the medical costs of the elderly. The Medicaid program finances medical care for low-income families. In many states, government maintains institutions for the mentally ill or people with severe disabilities. The federal government provides Food Stamps to help poor families obtain food, and the federal and state governments jointly provide welfare grants to support low-income parents with children.
Many of these programs, including Social Security, trace their roots to the "New Deal" programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served as the U.S. president from 1933 to 1945. Key to Roosevelt's reforms was a belief that poverty usually resulted from social and economic causes rather than from failed personal morals. This view repudiated a common notion whose roots lay in New England Puritanism that success was a sign of God's favor and failure a sign of God's displeasure. This was an important transformation in American social and economic thought. Even today, however, echoes of the older notions are still heard in debates around certain issues, especially welfare.
Many other assistance programs for individuals and families, including Medicare and Medicaid, were begun in the 1960s during President Lyndon Johnson's (1963-1969) "War on Poverty." Although some of these programs encountered financial difficulties in the 1990s and various reforms were proposed, they continued to have strong support from both of the United States' major political parties. Critics argued, however, that providing welfare to unemployed but healthy individuals actually created dependency rather than solving problems. Welfare reform legislation enacted in 1996 under President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) requires people to work as a condition of receiving benefits and imposes limits on how long individuals may receive payments.