Grievous, That’s What
Kevin Drum, in response to a Tyler Cowen post explaining that we have very little evidence that fiscal stimulus actually works, suggests we try it anyway:
But do we need examples? I’d argue that we’re basically in terra incognita today. In the postwar era, we’ve virtually never seen an industrialized country, let alone the whole world, stuck in a liquidity trap before. The only example that comes to mind is Japan in the 90s, and their experience with fiscal stimulus was pretty mixed. Depending on your preconceptions, you could take the Japanese experience either as proof that massive stimulus doesn’t work or as evidence that not enough was done. And either way, it’s only one example, so it would hardly be proof enough for skeptics anyway.
That leaves us with theory, which suggests that government spending when monetary policy has lost traction helps to stimulate the economy. But even if doesn’t, my question to Tyler is this: what harm does it do to try? Assuming that stimulus spending is implemented even modestly well, it will, at a minimum, help out a bunch of people with continued employment and produce a bunch of infrastructure improvements that will enhance our future welfare. The downside is more debt, and I’m open to the argument that this is a bad thing to the extent that this debt is funded from overseas and produces further deterioration in our current account balance. But is that the argument against spending? Or is it something else?
“what harm does it do to try?”
Believe it or not, folks, that’s actually a serious question. So let’s take one moment to ask what harm would occur. We’re left with a few simple questions.
- Where is the money going to come from?
- What are the negative effects of the provisioning of this money?
- What better things could the money be doing?
The answer to #1 can be threefold. First, that it is raised by spending offsets elsewhere. No, stop laughing! Second, it can be raised through taxation. Third, it can come from borrowing. Fourth, it can be printed out of thin air.
So based on the answer to #1, you can comprehend an answer to #2. If it is raised through taxation, that results in money being siphoned away from the productive economy at a time when it desperately needs liquidity. Especially due to the fact that most taxes are either on income or profits, and taxing the hell out of the portions of business who are actually earning during the downturn is not helpful. If it is raised through borrowing, you run into the same problem. You’re taking money away from productive enterprises who may have some risk in their needed borrowing by offering huge amounts of “safe” investments to the people with money. Essentially, you exacerbate the “liquidity trap” as the government soaks up the little liquidity that exists. Arguably, the printing press is the best of bad options, especially in a deflationary debt spiral, because it may stop the bleeding. But as I mentioned a mere two months ago, I don’t think they’ll know when to shut off the pump.
Based on all the negative answers to #2, you get a sense of the problems with #3. The real productive part of society is the private sector. Siphoning money away from that portion of the economy through taxation or borrowing hampers the ability of the private sector to operate. Trying to create make-work projects using printed money has the appearance of being much better, but it is only a matter of appearances — the economic activity is not “real” and every dollar spent makes everyone poorer through an inflation tax.
Drum’s argument is similar to one often used regarding FDR: “His small-scale socialism is what kept people fed and clothed enough to keep them from overthrowing the whole system.” It’s a nice claim, because it cannot be disproved, but the inherent claim is much simpler — “Doing nothing would be far worse than doing something.”
Drum suggests that even though we do not have any evidence that a massive fiscal stimulus program would work, it’s better than nothing*. He wants to put the burden of proof on us to show that massive fiscal stimulus is worse than doing nothing. But I think that the party who wants to either tax, borrow, or print anywhere between hundreds of billions to a few trillions of dollars for stimulus should carry the burden of proof. The default position is not to spend this money, and an absence of evidence of the utility of doing so is only further reason that we should do nothing.
* PS – To suggest that not engaging in stimulus is doing “nothing” is disingenuous. All it is suggesting is that we let the natural economy, which we entrust to do most of the productive work of our entire society, to operate unimpeded. While our government may not “do something”, you can be sure that the people of the USA will be doing everything they can to move the economy forward, as they do every day.