Chris House on stimulus spending

These points have been far too often forgotten:

Even if the multiplier is substantially above 1, it is not obvious that stimulus spending is a good idea. The reason is that we are not trying to maximize output and employment – we are trying to maximize overall social well-being. At a basic level, the idea behind stimulus spending is that the government will spend money on stuff that it wouldn’t have purchased if we weren’t in a recession. The classic caricature of stimulus spending is the idea of paying a worker to dig a hole and then paying another worker to fill the hole in. This type of stimulus spending will increase employment and GDP but it won’t really enhance social welfare. True, we might get the beneficial effects of the stimulus but we could achieve that by simply giving the workers the money without requiring that they dig the holes. If we simply give out the money, GDP increases by less but social well-being goes up by more since the work effort and time wasn’t required.

Even though the Keynesian hole-digging example is silly, the same argument can be applied to any type of government spending. If a project doesn’t meet the basic cost / benefit test, then it shouldn’t be funded, regardless of the need for stimulus.  Of course, one form of fiscal stimulus used in the ARRA was providing funds to state governments so they could maintain services that they would normally provide. This is perfectly sound policy because it is allowing the government to continue to fund projects that (presumably) do pass the cost / benefit calculation. If the social value of a government project exceeds its social cost then we should continue to fund the project whether we are in a recession or not. If the social value falls short of the social cost then, even if the economy is in “dire need” of stimulus we should not fund it. If we really need stimulus but there are no socially viable projects in the queue then the government should use tax cuts. Tax cuts can be adopted quickly and aggressively and, unlike spending initiatives, apply to virtually all Americans.

There are other “legitimate” reasons for the government to expand spending during a recession. The most obvious is that many things are relatively cheap in recessions. Reductions in manufacturing and construction employment may lower the cost for government projects. But again, this decision can be made on a simple cost / benefit basis. If prices fall because of a recession and this makes some projects socially viable as a result, then it’s perfectly correct for the government to fund those projects.

If it makes people feel better we could re-label tax cuts as spending. I could pay people $200 to look around for better paying jobs. This would be counted as $200 of job searching services purchased by the government but in reality, the money would be essentially the same as a tax cut.

The full post is here.


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