Investment, investment, investment — how to think about the Biden stimulus proposal

Here is my Bloomberg column on the stimulus, excerpt for those who are arguing for aid rather than stimulus:

Leave aside the political question of how aggressively to pursue an agenda of a larger, more activist government (and keep in mind that I am more libertarian than many of the participants in this debate). Take a Big Government as a given. History shows that consumption still ought not be the priority.

First, wise public-sector investments are better for the poor than one-time wealth transfers. The U.S. is still reaping the benefits of the great public-health and public-works achievements of the 20th century. Second, the most enduring and beneficial government-transfer programs, such as Social Security, have been built on sustainable majorities.

Progressive societies are fundamentally based on a valorization of investment — in physical structures, in software, in sustainable policies. This argues against a “Let’s grab this policy win while we can” attitude, no matter how popular that stance may currently be on social media. It’s foolish to think that no other policy combination is politically feasible, and if the president’s advisers and supporters really believe that, they are in for a long and unsatisfying four years.

It’s not as if there aren’t obvious candidates for alternative investment: green energy, broadband and public-health infrastructure for the next pandemic, to name a few. Yes, I am familiar with the argument that spending the extra trillion or so now will make it possible to spend more trillions later, including on such policies. But whatever kind of complicated political story you might tell, the basic laws of economics have not been repealed. Increasing current expenditures does, in fact, involve foregone future opportunities.

Another possible direction would be to rework Senator Mitt Romney’s proposed child support plan and turn it into an enduring policy. It is an expensive idea, but at least it would represent a greater investment in America’s future than mere one-off cash transfers.

The defenders of the president’s plan argue that inflation and an overheated economy are not major risks. Maybe so, maybe not — but that is not the crucial issue. Instead, ask yourself this question: Does this program, or this rhetoric, recognize the paramount importance of investment, whether public or private? If not, you needn’t look much further.

I say you can divide the commenters here into two groups.  Those who produce complicated arguments about why opportunity cost reasoning does not apply here, and those who stress the relevance of the opportunity cost of allocating another trillion dollars or two.  I believe that once you recognize that distinction, you know what to do with it next.

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