A Misunderstanding about (Government) Stimulus

Dr Alan Blinder, in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, notes that

A debate now rages in Europe over whether fiscal austerity—that is, higher taxes and less spending—helps or hinders growth.  That’s progress of sorts.

He’s right as far as he goes, but then he goes on.

[A] similar debate rages here in the US—with the lone exception that our pro-austerity crowd abhors tax increases.

Here are the beginnings of Binder’s misunderstanding.  I don’t know of a pro-austerity crowd anywhere in the US, at least among Republicans and Tea Partiers.  These folks are plainly pro-growth, and that clearly demands less government spending—and lower taxes.  Contrary to Progressives’ beliefs, it isn’t the government’s money, and the government doesn’t need as much of it as it tries to claim from us in taxes.

…help state and local governments maintain their spending, which has now dropped 6.4% since its 2008 peak[.]

It doesn’t get any clearer than this.  Nor the Feds, nor the states, nor local governments need to “maintain their spending.”  All levels of government need to reduce spending and quit competing with the private sector for goods and services, quit buying for the private sector the goods and services it can—and should—buy for itself.  It’s through private sector economic activity that comes growth, and jobs, which fuel growth.  All government spending can do is substitute for private sector spending—at the expense of taking money out of the private sector to pay for that spending, either in taxes today or taxes tomorrow.

Many Democrats also want to build and repair more roads, bridges, tunnels and the like….  Most Republicans reject that idea, too….

This is just a cynical distortion of the Republicans’ position, and it’s disappointing to see in someone who’s supposed to be a reasonably objective academic.  The need to work on our physical infrastructure is  bipartisanly recognized.  What the Progressives’ programs do, though, and what the Republicans object to, is simply transfer funds to Progressive-favored state and local governments and to union allies.  Honest funding support, that will help—help, mind you, not cover entirely—with actual work, and which funding is itself covered by spending cuts elsewhere, will find Republican support.  Look, for instance, to the 20+ jobs bills the Republican House has passed and that are languishing in the Senate because Blinder’s Democrats won’t even permit them to be debated, much less come to a vote.

He does have some specific ideas:

  •  Budget policy. For openers, as I advocated in these pages last month, we need a two-pronged fiscal package.  In the near term, we need modest stimulus, focused tightly on creating jobs.  But that stimulus should be paired with a vastly larger dose of long-run deficit reduction—perhaps 10 to 20 times as large as the stimulus—over the 10-year budget window.

Economically, this can be done; it’s not even that hard. But if Republicans continue to reject even deals comprised of $10 of spending cuts for each $1 of tax increases, it’s hard to see how we get there politically.

I debunked this here.

  •  Private investment. Republicans are right that business investment is the key to growth. Fortunately, business investment has done very nicely, thank you, despite the sluggish economy—growing 8.4% over the past year and at an annual rate of 10.8% over the past two years.  (The corresponding growth rates for GDP were about 2%.)  So while there’s always room for improvement, business investment is not part of the problem.  The best thing policy can do for private investment is to get the overall economy growing faster.

Indeed.  And the best policy for achieving that is reduced government spending competition with the private sector, lower taxes, and reduced regulatory burden—which has exploded under the present administration.  The EPA’s rules are especially onerous, irrelevant to the economy, and job-destroying.  HHS’ regulations also attack private sector job growth, as well as such minor things as constitutionally protected religious freedom.

  •  Public investment. Unlike private investment, inadequate public investment is part of the problem.  America’s infrastructure needs are so huge, and so painfully obvious, that it’s mind-boggling we’re not investing more.  The U.S. government can now borrow for five years at about 0.75% and for 10 years at about 1.7%.  Both rates are far below expected inflation, making real interest rates sharply negative.  Yet legions of skilled construction workers remain unemployed while we drive our cars over pothole-laden roads and creaky bridges.  Does this make sense?

Public “investment” is, indeed, part of the problem.  “There’s a sale on! Let’s go buy!  Think how much we can save at these prices!”  Think how much more we can save, if we don’t buy at all.  The existence of a sale, whether it’s in a lower price for a good or a lower price for borrowing, is no excuse at all for spending—or borrowing.  Spending and borrowing must have a legitimate purpose, not merely be “cheap.”  All those nickels borrowed today add up to lots of dollars owed—and so taxed for—tomorrow.

Moreover, this administration poured nearly $1 trillion into stimulus—including no small part of infrastructure maintenance buildout and maintenance—in 2009, and it’s been pouring out more since, in the form of loan guarantees, among other routes, for “green” energy infrastructure, among other things.  What have we gotten for all that “investment?” Transfers to unions, transfers to states for their own payoffs, bankrupt “green” energy companies, but no actual infrastructure maintenance buildout or maintenance.  Does this make sense?

  •  Education. Everyone knows that the returns to education, while large, are long delayed.  That means we have no time to waste.  We should be doing a much better job of building a better educated, more productive work force for the future.  A Council on Foreign Relations task force co-chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein recently argued that better K-12 education is critical to American leadership in the world and therefore to our national security.

Indeed, again.  Government needs to stop driving up the cost of education by subsidizing it.  We as a society need to stop stigmatizing those who lack a college degree.  College is not for everyone.  Nor do those in the trades need a college degree; they need a decent VoTech source of education and training—the sort of thing we used to get in our high schools all those years ago, and that could be improved upon by our community colleges—many of which do fill this bill.

Why in the world are we still arguing about this?

Because the Democrats and their Do-Nothing Senate, and the President, are in the way.  If it’s Republican, it’s to be ignored.  It’s all Bush’s fault.  It’s racist.  Pick a Progressive excuse.

Which candidate does that remind you of?

In terms of not understanding the distinction between economic growth and government growth?  That’s pretty clear.

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