Tag: gdp growth

Another Log for the Government Spending Multiplier Fire

At the center of the debate over efforts by policymakers to “stimulate” the economy with government spending is the issue of fiscal multipliers. Some economists argue that government spending can be a free lunch: an additional dollar of government spending increases GDP by more than one dollar. Other economists say that government spending is not so free: an additional dollar of government spending increases GDP by less than one dollar or even reduces it.

My non-empirically based view is that the mainstream media tends to treat the free lunch position as gospel. Why that appears to be the case I’ll leave to others to speculate, but it is decidedly irritating. Back in 2010, my colleague Alan Reynolds noted that a survey conducted by an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco counted several studies that concluded that the multiplier effect of government spending is less than one.

We can now add to the list another study that found a multiplier of less than one.

From a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by economist Valerie Ramey:

For the most part, it appears that a rise in government spending does not stimulate private spending; most estimates suggest that it significantly lowers private spending. These results imply that the government spending multiplier is below unity. Adjusting the implied multiplier for increases in tax rates has only a small effect. The results imply a multiplier on total GDP of around 0.5.

Note: For readers who are interested in real world examples of how government spending hinders economic growth, check out DownsizingGovernment.org.

Obama’s Economic Policies Create Misery

The public has finally started to give President Obama’s economic policies a big “thumbs down”.  This shouldn’t surprise anyone who is familiar with the Misery Index.

While President Obama sings the glories of big government, it is ironic that he has been marked by the curse of government failure.  One metric that measures how this curse will affect the President’s performance is the Misery Index (see the accompanying chart).

The Index is calculated by adding the difference between the average inflation rate over a president’s term and the average inflation rate during the last year of the previous president’s term; the difference between the average unemployment rate over a president’s term and the unemployment rate during the last month of the previous president’s term; the change in the 30-year government bond yield during a president’s term; and the difference between the long-term, trend rate of real GDP growth (3.25%) and the real rate of growth during a president’s term.

I have forecast what President Obama’s most likely Misery Index score will be at the end of his current term.  This miserable score – one that is relative to George W. Bush’s very weak performance in his second term – is already baked in the cake and can be laid squarely at the feet of President Obama’s own policy errors and government failure.  For a president whose agenda is designed to overthrow the Reagan Revolution, the Misery Index should be a sobering reminder that free markets, not big government, generate prosperity.

Even Keynesian Accounting Can’t Find All That ‘Stimulus’

From January 2009 to the present, President Obama and his team have repeatedly made grandiose claims about the economic benefits of shoveling money at shovel-ready projects or green jobs.  “It is largely thanks to the Recovery Act that a second Depression is no longer a possibility,” said the President.   He also claimed that lavish spending alone (not Federal Reserve actions or bank bailouts) is what prevented the unemployment rate from “getting up to … 15%.”

If any of that were remotely close to being true then, as a matter of simple accounting, rising federal spending would have shown up as a huge offset to falling GDP in 2009, and also as a major component of the modest increase in GDP growth in early 2010.   On the contrary, the table below shows that the increase in federal nondefense spending contributed only two-tenths of one percent (0.2) to the change in GDP in 2009.  That was no better than 2008 when the Recovery Act did not exist.  If nondefense spending had not increased at all in 2009 (unlike 2008) then GDP would have fallen 2.8% rather than 2.6% — scarcely the difference between a recession and a “second Depression.”  If nondefense federal spending had not increased at all in 2010, the economy still would have grown at a 3.6% pace in the first quarter, 2.1% in the second.  Cutbacks in state and local spending were a trivial damper on GDP growth last year, contrary to recent speculation, and real state and local spending rose significantly in this year’s second quarter (unlike the first).

This is just an exercise in crude Keynesian accounting, not economics.  Yet it nonetheless makes the stimulus bill look like a huge waste of money.  The reason Keynesian accounting is no substitute for economics is that governments can only spend other peoples’ money.  To claim that such spending is a net addition to “aggregate demand” is to ignore those other people — namely, current and future taxpayers.

Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas put it this way:

If the government builds a bridge … by taking tax money away from somebody else, and using that to pay the bridge builder — the guys who work on the bridge — then it’s just a wash.  It has no first-starter effect.  There’s no reason to expect any stimulation.  And, in some sense, there’s nothing to apply a multiplier to.  You apply a multiplier to the bridge builders, then you’ve got to apply the same multiplier with a minus sign to the people you taxed to build the bridge.  And then taxing them later isn’t going to help, we know that.

Re. Ezra Klein: Did State and Local Anti-stimulus Nullify Federal Stimulus?

A recent Washington Post column by Ezra Klein dreamed up a new excuse for the conspicuous failure of Obama’s so-called stimulus plan.   Klein argues that the stimulus of federal spending has been offset by the “anti-stimulus” of fiscal austerity by state and local governments.  For proof he quotes Bruce Bartlett, who is fast becoming the favorite go-to guy for liberals seeking conservative allies in their endless quest for more spending and taxes. 

Bartlett says, “When the history of the current crisis is written, much of the blame will be placed on the sharp fiscal contraction of state and local governments.  I think economists will view this as a preventable error equivalent to the Fed’s passive shrinkage of the money supply in the early 1930s.”

A historian himself, Bartlett imagines this to be a question that will have to be pondered by historians in the distant future.   But it is easy to identify each sector’s direct contribution to the overall growth rate of real GDP from a St. Louis Fed publication, “National Economic Trends.” 

State and local government spending was rising during the first three quarters of the recession, and the drop in the fourth quarter of 2008 accounted for just 0.25% of the 5.37% annualized decline in GDP.  In the first quarter of 2009, state and local spending subtracted  just 0.19% from real GDP, but federal spending subtracted more (0.33%) due to cuts in defense spending.  Government obviously made only a minor contribution to the 6.4% drop in overall GDP.
In the second quarter of 2009, state and local spending was way up (by 0.48%), as was federal spending (0.85%).  But the private economy did not begin expanding until the third quarter – when government spending stopped diverting so many resources to unproductive uses.
The table shows that government spending on goods and services had nothing to do with the recovery (transfer payments don’t contribute to GDP).  

As a matter of simple accounting, the state and local sector has been a very minor negative force −scarcely comparable to the Fed’s inaction in 1930-32

Federal purchases, whether for heavily-subsidized ”green jobs” or shovel-ready pork, have been virtually irrelevant during the last two quarters.

Contributions to Real GDP Growth
……………………..  3rd…… 4th…… 1st qtr

Real GDP              2.2         5.6             3.0%
Private                   1.6         5.8             3.4
Federal                  0.6        0.0            0.1
State & Local     -0.1      -0.3           -0.5

Wednesday Links

  • Drop the neocons: “Republicans should take this opportunity to return to their traditional noninterventionist roots and throw their neoconservative wing under the bus.”
  • John Samples on the national impact of this week’s elections: “The evidence suggests the Obama administration might be on the same path that led the Clinton presidency to the election of 1994. But there is an important difference: In 1994, the public had some faith in the alternative to Clinton and the Democrats in Congress.”

Misinformation from Heritage

The Heritage Foundation has a chart up on its blog, showing defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product and declaring that “Obama plan cuts defense spending to pre-9/11 levels.”

This is a standard rhetorical device for defense hawks (see the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Mitt Romney and lots of others) so it’s worth pointing out that it’s misleading. The unfortunate truth is that Obama is increasing non-war defense spending this year and seems likely to increase it at least by inflation in the near future.

It’s true that defense spending will probably decline as a percentage of GDP, assuming the economy recovers. But that’s because GDP grows. Ours is more than six times bigger than it was in 1950.  Meanwhile, we spend more on defense in real, inflation adjusted terms, than we did then, at the height of the Cold War. The denoninator has grown faster than the numerator. 

By saying that defense spending needs to grow with GDP to be “level,” you are arguing for an annual increase in defense spending without saying so directly. That’s the point, of course.

To be straight with readers, charts that show defense spending as a percentage of GDP should either show GDP growth over time or include a line that shows defense spending in real terms. Otherwise they fail to demonstrate that the decline in defense spending as a percentage of GDP is a consequence of growing GDP, not lower spending.

Here’s a chart from the Congressional Budget Office’s report, “The Long Term Implications of the Current Defense Plans,” that does this.

The assumption in analysis like Heritage’s is that defense spending should be a function of economic growth, not enemies and strategies for defending against them.  It’s easy to point out that this is strategically and fiscally foolish. And it’s worth noting, as I have on many occasions, that we face a benign threat environment and can cut defense spending massively as a result.

But there is something weirder going on here that warrants mention.  Arguing that wealth creation should drive defense spending is to attempt to divorce the military from its strategic rationale. That’s an implicit acknowledgement that defense spending is not for safety.  High military spending in this worldview is either an end in itself or a partisan or cultural tool.  That’s not much of a revelation, I guess.