Private Investment and Public “Investment”

Politicians are fond of telling the public that we must “invest” in this program or that—be it education; health care; make-work infrastructure projects like the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere”; $50 million for an indoor rainforest in Iowa; $3.4 million for a tunnel to allow turtles to cross under a highway in Florida; $1.8 million for swine odor and manure management research; or millions of dollars for various research studies on the mating habits of cactus bugs, Japanese quail, woodchucks, and South African ground squirrels. All of these are actual appropriations, I’m sorry to say. “Investing” in some grand political design or program sounds so much better than saying, “I want to tax you so that politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. [or your state capital or city hall], can spend your money on whatever we think is best for you (or our campaign contributors).”

In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama spoke of the need for the federal government to help boost the economy by making “investments” in a wide variety of areas, including construction jobs, high-speed rail, education, biomedical research, “clean energy” technology, and even high-speed wireless Internet access. But this “investment” is just a code word for more spending on pet programs. This will only lead to more economic stagnation, not economic recovery, because the wealth-consuming nature of public investment is fundamentally different from the wealth-creating nature of private investment. Taxpayers ignore this difference at their peril.

President Obama’s form of investment promises to “create countless new jobs for our people,” but he does not stop to ask from where the money to pay for all these new jobs will come. It must be taken from others “of our people,” either today, through tax increases, or tomorrow, through borrowing (which will harm the economy in the future and delay the ultimate recovery). Of course, taking money from taxpayers to fund these new jobs means there is less money left in the private sector to invest in new jobs and business growth.

The crucial difference between the public sector and the private sector is that the public sector cannot create wealth; it can only shift resources from one group of people to another (after skimming some off the top to placate special-interest campaign donors and support bureaucratic inefficiency, of course). In the private sector, job growth—and economic growth generally—occurs when firms create something that consumers value. In the public sector, government growth occurs whenever government can appropriate more money from the people, and these funds are directed to whatever politicians desire.

The government’s “investment” in green energy startup Solyndra Inc. is a case in point. Last May, President Obama visited the Fremont, California-based solar panel maker in a highly publicized photo-op to hail it as the kind of business in which he thinks the country should invest. And that’s just what the government did. In September 2009 the administration announced that it was awarding Solyndra $535 million in taxpayer-funded loans to finance the construction of a new solar-equipment factory. The following June, just one month after the President’s visit, the company cancelled its initial public offering, and its CEO quit the following month. In November 2010 the company announced it was abandoning its plans to expand its Fremont facility (and the planned hiring of a thousand workers) and would even have to close another factory in the East Bay, eliminating nearly 200 additional workers. That’s some investment.

Throwing Good Money after Bad

This episode did not prevent Obama from visiting another green-energy company two days after delivering his State of the Union address to tout the benefits that surely would come from investing in such technology. During his trip to renewable-energy firm Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, Obama lamented that the United States was falling behind the investment of even more centrally planned economies: “China’s making these investments and they have already captured a big chunk of the solar market, partly because we fell down on the job. We weren’t moving as fast as we should have. Those are jobs that could be created right here that are getting shipped overseas.” While China has made great strides toward a more open economy in the past couple decades, the communist country is hardly a model for economic policy. China’s growth is due to its economic liberalization, not the arbitrary decisions of the ruling elite, yet these command-and-control elements of economic planning that remain in China seem to be Obama’s model of the ideal. This does not bode well for economic liberty and growth here in the United States.

Government has never been particularly good at picking economic winners. Consider, for example, the government “investments” in Amtrak, which has never turned a profit since it began service in 1971 and has lost about $35 billion in its 40 years of operation—or the U.S. Postal Service, which lost a record $8.5 billion last year alone and has projected an additional $6.4 billion loss this year.

The reason for this failure of government investment is not simply poor leadership (although this is certainly endemic and does not help matters) but rather an inability to determine value in the public sector. There is no market price system in government, so there is no measure of profit and loss. As Mises noted in Human Action, “There is no such thing as prices outside the market. Prices cannot be constructed synthetically, as it were.” In Bureaucracy he added, “Bureaucratic management is management of affairs which cannot be checked by economic calculation.”


In a free market prices are determined by supply and demand, by changing consumer preferences, differing knowledge and evaluations of market information, and the risk-taking of entrepreneurs. A greater desire for a good or service will be reflected in consumers’ willingness to pay more for it and bid up the price.

In the political sphere “value”—such as how much to spend on a particular government program—is determined by the force and influence politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests can exert to extract money from taxpayers and divide it up as these elites please. There is rarely even any semblance of competition for the provision of these services and thus little incentive to maximize productivity and service quality or minimize costs. Since there are no price signals to reveal people’s preferences for one thing or another, there is no good mechanism to determine if programs are useful or satisfying constituent demands.

In the absence of a true market price mechanism, how do you tell if an investment is profitable? And where is the incentive to avoid unprofitable investments? If a government program is deemed successful, there are calls to provide more funding. If it is a failure, we are told we must double down on the spending in order to turn it into a successful program.

Private investment means putting your own money at risk in anticipation of realizing a gain later; public “investment” means taking and spending someone else’s money to support your idea of how you think they should live, or to satisfy the special interests that help get you reelected. Private investment requires putting off spending today so that you may (hopefully) earn more in the future; public “investment” is all about spending today.

Unfortunately, the federal government has not learned the lessons history has tried to teach us about subsidizing business and illusory job growth. This ignorance is especially on display when politicians react to the onset of a recession. The prescription made famous by economist John Maynard Keynes is to “stimulate” the economy through government spending and job creation (otherwise known as “make-work”). Never mind that this means fighting a problem of too much debt by incurring even more debt. As Freeman columnist Robert Higgs, senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and author of Crisis and Leviathan, has said, “Every drunk understands this way of fighting depressions.”

Lost Decade

In the 1990s—and beyond, as it turned out—Japan faced a financial crisis as asset bubbles in the real estate and stock markets, stoked by the central bank’s expansionist monetary policy of the late 1980s, burst and prices came crashing down. The ensuing government response and policy errors paralyzed the economy and ultimately led to a series of economic recessions. Japan followed the Keynesian remedy—with disastrous results—and the country still has not recovered to this day. During the 1990s, Japan passed ten fiscal stimulus packages, focused largely on public works. When one construction plan did not work (meaning it did not return the economy to rapid growth), another was tried. Altogether the Japanese government spent about $6.3 trillion on construction-related projects between 1991 and 2008. Those plans did not revive the economy, but they did saddle the nation with a mountain of debt that postponed any recovery at all for many years, leading the period to be dubbed Japan’s “Lost Decade.”

The construction jobs for the government’s infrastructure projects were not sustainable and did not lead to systemic economic growth. Public debt skyrocketed, unemployment actually doubled, and the economy remained stagnant. (Does any of this sound familiar?) As Gavan McCormack, Pacific and Asian history professor at the Australian National University, noted in his book The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence, “The construction state is in some respects akin to the military-industrial complex in Cold War America (or the Soviet Union), sucking in the country’s wealth, consuming it inefficiently, growing like a cancer and bequeathing both fiscal crisis and environmental devastation.”

The Great Depression

Even during the Great Depression, often held up as a great example of government creating jobs to help get the nation out of an economic recession, President Roosevelt’s massive spending program, which actually had its roots in the Hoover administration, did not stimulate the economy. Despite all that spending and all those jobs programs, unemployment remained extremely high. Prior to the stock market crash in 1929, the unemployment rate stood at a little over 3 percent. By 1933, in the midst of massive spending and public-works projects, it had risen to 25 percent. Even after years of New Deal programs unemployment remained around 15 percent or higher through 1940. It was not until World War II that unemployment dropped back to the low single digits (and then only because millions were drafted into military service).

This led Henry Morgenthau, treasury secretary under Roosevelt, to make a startling admission in 1939:

We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. And I have just one interest, and if I am wrong . . . somebody else can have my job. I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises. . . . I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. . . . And an enormous debt to boot! (Morgenthau Diary, Roosevelt Presidential Library)

The fact is that economic recessions—and even more serious depressions—need not be so severe or so long-lived. It is government policies that prevent the natural pressures and incentives of the market from purging bad investments and other economic decisions and returning to a path of stable growth. As Murray Rothbard wrote in the introduction to the third edition of his book, America’s Great Depression,

Before the massive government interventions of the 1930s, all recessions were short-lived. The severe depression of 1921 was over so rapidly, for example, that Secretary of Commerce [Herbert] Hoover, despite his interventionist inclinations, was not able to convince President Harding to intervene rapidly enough; by the time Harding was persuaded to intervene, the depression was already over, and prosperity had arrived. When the stock market crash arrived in October, 1929, Herbert Hoover, now the president, intervened so rapidly and so massively that the market-adjustment process was paralyzed, and the Hoover-Roosevelt New Deal policies managed to bring about a permanent and massive depression, from which we were only rescued by the advent of World War II. Laissez-faire—a strict policy of non-intervention by the government—is the only course that can assure a rapid recovery in any depression crisis.

After more than two and a half years and trillions of dollars worth of bank and auto industry bailouts, stimulus packages, and Federal Reserve interventions, the American economy remains sluggish and unemployment is still about 9 percent. According to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, it could take another four or five years for the labor market to “normalize fully.” Unless the government’s interventionist policies are abandoned and reversed, it appears that the United States is headed for its own Lost Decade.

The United States’ $14 trillion federal debt and annual deficits of over $1 trillion are reducing productivity and hindering economic growth. It is time we learned the repeated lessons of the past that government spending, particularly when used to try to stimulate an economy, is simply a bad investment.

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