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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

More Government Action Needed for Job Recovery?

Would it come as a shock to hear one of the best-known apologists for government intervention in the economy admitting that it hasn’t worked (so far)? This is exactly what Nobel Prize-winning economist and uber-Keynesian Paul Krugman does in a New York Times column, stating, “[W]e are not now and have never been on the road to recovery” (“The Wrong Worries,” August 4).

That’s right: Despite record federal spending and unprecedented Federal Reserve intervention, the economy remains depressed. Beyond stating the obvious about the nonrecovery Krugman frets about the long-term implications of the stubbornly sour labor market. He also notes that consumers are “still burdened by the debt that they ran up during the housing bubble,” which, to my Hayek-schooled mind, sounds an awful lot like the drawn-out bust phase of a credit-fueled business cycle.

Rather than concluding that deficit spending and printing money are the wrong cures for what ails us, Krugman complains that government is not doing enough. Citing the tea-party Republicans’ “deficit obsession,” Krugman complains that government has been “pulling back [rather than] supporting the economy in its time of need.” He also cites lassitude at the Fed, claiming it’s been “intimidated by the Ron Paul types” into overreacting against potential inflation. Krugman argues the federal government should be doing much more, and its top priority should be creating jobs, not reducing the deficit.

While Krugman avoids the specifics of what such grandiose federal jobs programs would entail, he’s on the record supporting massive New Deal-style public-works spending, which would employ “armies of government workers.” Krugman also favors more monetary stimulus by the Fed to boost spending throughout the economy. In brief Krugman is saying we have not yet begun to fight the Keynesian battle of stimulus on either the monetary or fiscal fronts.

Let’s review the figures. Since September 2008 the Fed has more than tripled its balance sheet, printing roughly $2 trillion in new bank reserves, monetizing around $900 billion of U.S. government debt, and lending over $3 trillion to U.S. and foreign banks. As for federal spending—the real growth engine, in Krugman’s mind—it increased by 40 percent (29 percent in real terms) from 2007 to 2011 to a record $3.8 trillion, with half that increase coming in the recession year 2009 alone. “Stimulus” spending by itself has amounted to $666 billion so far, and federal bailouts have racked up at least $150 billion in taxpayer costs. Since 2007 gross public debt has increased from 64 to 103 percent of GDP.

And Krugman’s argument again? Government is not printing and spending enough. This fetish for unlimited spending juxtaposes strangely against a backdrop of perhaps the most fiscally profligate decade of American history, but I’ll give Krugman credit for boldness. However, the figures themselves, shocking as they are, mask the real question: Can more government spending actually encourage productive employment that promotes overall economic welfare?

Stimulus enthusiasts like Krugman are sure it can. And their first big task for the new labor armies is to go forth and fix America’s broken infrastructure. Haven’t you heard? America’s roads, bridges, sewers, airports, and more are in total disrepair—so says the infrastructure lobby. But these folks—an assortment of large construction, manufacturing, and transport companies, and their unions—have been carping about infrastructure being underfunded for the last 30 years. No surprise here: like any special-interest group, they want a continued and enlarged flow of federal funding. Hence my Public Choice nerves twitch at every mention of “crumbling infrastructure.”

But let’s concede that they’re right: that our infrastructure is in a sad state and more federal spending would be a wise investment. Using the infrastructure lobby’s figure of 18,000 new jobs for every $1 billion in government spending, doubling federal infrastructure spending would reduce the unemployment rate to 8.3 percent. And this ignores the matter of timing, as infrastructure projects require years of planning and regulatory hurdle-jumping before they’re “shovel-ready.” Nonetheless, even the most unrealistically generous assumptions about infrastructure spending indicate that if you want to get the economy back to full employment, it’s going to take a lot more than just public works.

But stepping back from labor army fantasies, there’s something absurd about using infrastructure “investment” as a jobs program. To the extent that federal funding of infrastructure is economically advisable, “good government” would require minimum expenditure (read: minimum employment), lest said public works turn into a black hole of rent-seeking—public spending to enrich private interests.

Infrastructure spending is not immune to the institutional inefficiencies that beset all government programs. But questioning the value and efficiency of public works is only half the matter. Call me a conservative stick in the mud, but the little question of how the government is going to pay for all this largess strikes me as relevant these days.

Krugman of course sees no problem here. He is on record favoring larger deficits, seeing historically low interest rates as a go-ahead for even more federal borrowing. Oddly enough, others in the economy, such as Standard & Poor’s, see a quite large problem with continuing government debt growth. It’s called insolvency: If you have too much debt and you can never pay it off, bad consequences ensue. (I wonder if Krugman would advise a family with $325,000 in credit card debt on an income of $50,000 a year to go ahead and open up a new credit card account simply because it came with a 0 percent teaser rate?) While Krugman, with his stale brand of vulgar Keynesianism, appears increasingly oblivious to it, other recent events have revealed in stark fashion what our real economic problem is—excessive government debt, a direct consequence of excessive government spending.

The fixation on ever-bigger government stimulus programs to “fix the economy” reveals the basic fallacy with Krugman and the Keynesians. They view “the economy” and “the government” as distinct entities—as if poor little Johnny Economy would be just fine if only rich, stingy old Uncle Sam would open up his wallet and give Johnny a job! The reality is that the economy is us—the government exists within the U.S. economy, not apart from it. To “support” the economy the government must take resources from the very same economy. This can only confer a net increase in productive activity if government bureaucrats and politicians a) are truly benevolent, suppressing their representation of private interests in favor of “the general welfare” and b) know better than individual entrepreneurs throughout the country how to wisely invest scarce resources.

Since the days of Hume and Smith, economists have rightfully heaped skepticism on such assumptions. Politicians and bureaucrats are neither angelic nor omniscient; simply increasing their ability to print and spend is not a formula for prosperity. The fact that the United States is currently suffering the lingering effects of a complex recession and government debt crisis does not change these lessons, but confirms them. To adapt a phrase from a president who understood this (even if he couldn’t quite enact it): In our present crisis government spending is not the solution to the problem; government spending is the problem.

  • Tyler Watts is an assistant professor of economics at East Texas Baptist University.