Fiscal Policy Tools: Government Spending and Taxes

Lesson Transcript
Jon Nash

Jon has taught Economics and Finance and has an MBA in Finance

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Fiscal policy is the management of government spending and tax policies to influence the economy. Explore the tools within the fiscal policy toolkit, such as expansionary and contractionary fiscal policies. Updated: 08/14/2021

Fiscal Policy Tools and the Economy

Imagine that Sam is sick. He's at home right now, and the doctor's been called. All of a sudden, the doorbell rings, and standing at the front door is a doctor carrying a medical kit. Now, the doctor comes in the patient's bedroom, opens up the kit and finds three tools inside. I'll bet you're curious about what's in the kit, huh? The doctor chooses one or two of the tools in his toolkit and uses them on the patient.

Now imagine the patient is the whole economy. The economy has entered a slowdown that has now turned into a full-blown recession. Unemployment is high, and people are fearful of their financial future. The government uses its own fiscal policy toolkit, like a doctor, to administer fiscal policy tools - like government spending, taxes and transfer payments - to help strengthen aggregate demand when it's weak. On the other hand, when the economy is overheating by growing beyond its capacity, fiscal policy does the opposite and slows down economic growth to address the problem of inflation.

Now, the word 'fiscal' means 'budget' and refers to the government's budget. Fiscal policy, therefore, is the use of government spending, taxation and transfer payments to influence aggregate demand and, therefore, real GDP. If you imagine the government as the doctor carrying the medical kit, these three things are in the toolkit: government spending, taxes and transfer payments. Let's briefly look at some examples of each one of these fiscal policy tools.

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  • 0:05 Fiscal Policy Tools…
  • 2:06 Government Spending
  • 3:31 Taxes
  • 4:10 Transfer Payments
  • 5:06 Expansionary vs.…
  • 7:40 Lesson Summary
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Government Spending

Government spending includes the purchase of goods and services - for example, a fleet of new cars for government employees or missiles for national defense. Government spending is a fiscal policy tool because it has the power to raise or lower real GDP. By adjusting government spending, the government can influence economic output.

In addition to the primary effect of government spending on the economy, this spending multiplies through the economy as it affects businesses who sell the goods and services bought by the government. Consumers then go on to spend the paychecks they earn from those businesses, stimulating real GDP even more.

For example, when Larry's Limos receives a large order for more government vehicles, his sales increase, and he hires more employees who earn a paycheck from the company. Once they cash their paycheck, they spend this money on goods and services, and the effect of a single increase in government spending now leads to a much greater result - an effect that economists call the multiplier effect.


Alright, let's talk about taxes. Taxes are a fiscal policy tool because changes in taxes affect the average consumer's income, and changes in consumption lead to changes in real GDP. So, by adjusting taxes, the government can influence economic output. Taxes can be changed in several ways. Firstly, marginal tax rates can be raised or lowered. Secondly, they can be eliminated entirely, or the tax rules can be modified.

Transfer Payments

Alright. We've talked about government spending, then we talked about taxes - now let's talk about transfer payments. Transfer payments include things like Social Security, welfare or unemployment checks. These checks go out all over the country on a monthly basis and serve as the income for tens of millions of consumers. Transfer payments are fiscal policy tools in the same way that taxes are because changes in transfer payments lead to changes in consumer income, and when consumers spend more of their income, this influences economic output.

So, these are the three main tools that the government administers to the economy to help it in the short-term. But they can be used in two different ways. Let's find out how.

Expansionary vs. Contractionary Fiscal Policy

Each tool can be used in two opposite ways - to help expand economic output or, on the other hand, to help contract economic output, based on the diagnosis made by fiscal authorities. When the government uses fiscal policy to stimulate aggregate demand during a recession, economists call this expansionary fiscal policy.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Fiscal Policy Tools:

Definition Prompt:

Define fiscal policy in your own words in approximately two to three sentences.

Hint: Fiscal policy can influence the GDP.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of approximately three to four paragraphs that explains government spending as a fiscal policy tool. Be sure to answer the following question: How does government spending influence economic output?

Example: The money that businesses earn from government spending can result in the need for more employees, and those employees can stimulate the economy by spending a portion of their wages.

Essay Prompt 2:

In one to two paragraphs, write an essay that explains how taxes can be used as a fiscal policy tool.

Example: Tax rates can be raised or lowered.

Essay Prompt 3:

In approximately two to three paragraphs, write an essay that describes transfer payments as a fiscal policy tool. Be sure to answer the following question: How are transfer payments similar to taxes as a fiscal policy tool?

Example: Transfer payments include things like Social Security payments, and they can alter people's incomes and spending power.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Create a poster, chart, or other type of graphic organizer that compares and contrasts expansionary fiscal policy and contractionary fiscal policy.

Example: Contractionary fiscal policy can be used to curb inflation, while expansionary fiscal policy can be used to increase aggregate demand.

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