Stimulus? Yet Again?

by: Robert P. Murphy

This week the Obama administration lays out its plans to further “stimulate” the economy. In particular, the president unveiled his proposals for $50 billion more in infrastructure spending, and a $100 billion extension to a tax credit on research and development.

Unfortunately these ideas range from misguided to downright harmful. If the federal government really wants to promote economic recovery, it should cut spending and taxes in general, and basically get out of the way.

Government Spending and Job Creation

As explained in this CNN story, in his Labor Day speech in Milwaukee, “Obama unveiled a $50 billion infrastructure plan to try and create jobs over the long-term by rebuilding 150,000 miles of roads, 4,000 miles of rail, and 150 miles of airport runways.” The rationale behind the plan is the simple Keynesian notion that government spending can “fill the gap” in aggregate demand when private businesses and individuals are unwilling to spend enough to keep everyone employed.

There are several problems with this common approach. In the first place, it confuses a low unemployment rate with “a healthy economy.” Now, it’s true that a high unemployment rate goes hand in hand with a sick economy. But the unemployment rate is a symptom of the underlying structural problem. Government efforts to “reduce unemployment” are, at best, like putting ice cubes on a thermometer to treat a fever.

For example, most pundits accept the claim that “World War II got us out of the Depression.” And it’s true that the official unemployment rate dropped like a stone with US entry into the war. But as economic historian Bob Higgs points out, FDR had hardly “fixed” the economy: all he did was force millions of American men to leave the conventional workforce and jump into a slaughterhouse. By the same token, if President Obama made it mandatory for five million Americans to cross the ocean and paint the Great Wall of China, it’s possible that the official unemployment rate would drop.

Beyond this fundamental confusion, there is another problem with government “stimulus” spending. Simply put, the money has to come from somewhere, and it’s not at all obvious that the net result leads to job creation, even if we accept jobs as indicators of a healthy economy.

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Reposted from Mises Economics blog