The United States (and the world) economy is (or at least has been for the last few months) in decline with rising unemployment rates. It is widely believed the government must “do something.” The political and media classes, and even many economists, call for an “economic stimulus program.” But what do they mean by “stimulus,” and will it do any good?
The argument is made that many Americans are suffering from a decline in income, and thus the government should give them money so they can buy more and put others back to work. Sounds good — but where does the government get the money? It must either tax someone else now or borrow more money, which diverts productive saving to current consumption. Either way, it is less than a zero‐sum game.
Every time direct government payments have been tried, they have failed. During the Great Depression, government spending soared as a percentage of gross domestic product, but full employment did not return until World War II. During the last eight years, U.S. government spending has greatly increased in both absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP, yet the economy now performs worse than it did a decade ago.
When one person is taxed more to pay another person, the incentive to work diminishes and so the total income enjoyed by both people declines. The recipient might be slightly better off for a few months, but the economy (that is, everyone else), and eventually even the original beneficiary will be worse off. The government can only divert savings (through additional government bond sales) for a limited period before everyone will be worse off. The evidence is that the first Bush tax cut back in 2001, which was actually a tax rebate, did little good. In fact, it is now known that people saved much of the money, so the government borrowed some people’s savings to provide money for others (or even the same people — who didn’t spend it, but saved it). The lesson was learned, and in 2003 the tax rates were cut, which increased incentives for work, saving and investment and hence did a lot of good.
The history of various economic experiments and sound theory (unlike much of the Keynesian claptrap) teaches us government handouts, or tax rebates, are unlikely to do any good and can often be counterproductive.