Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Good vs. Bad Government Spending

Paul Krugman believes that the problem with the fiscal stimulus is that it just wasn’t large enough and that we are in need of another one to improve the economy. He even went so far as to suggest that a military buildup to protect us from a fake alien invasion would be a good thing.

As support for this he brings back his argument that World War II brought us out of the depression. The idea that war is good for the economy is absolutely wrong. While it may be true that war (or any fiscal stimulus) increases GDP, a higher GDP does not mean an improved economy. (I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he doesn’t believe that the death of 400,000 military personnel isn’t good because of the higher per capita GDP.)
An economy only improves if people have more of the things they want. War does not do this and neither does wasteful fiscal spending. Professor Krugman also argues that cutting federal spending and austerity is bad which is wholly incongruous with his argument that World War II was good for the economy because the war was a period of tremendous austerity with the rationing of many goods.

Now this is not to say that Krugman is entirely wrong about fiscal spending. Government spending is worth it if the benefits outweigh the costs and this is true whether the economy is in a recession or an expansion. Some spending, such as protection against fake alien invasions, provide no benefits and should not be undertaken. I would also include land wars in Asia, most entitlement spending, and most wealth redistribution efforts in this category of wasteful government. Beneficial government spending would include some amounts of national defense, education, infrastructure, legal and regulatory framework, scientific research, and even some entitlements and wealth redistribution.

I would even agree with Keynesians that federal spending should increase during recessions. Not because it stimulates the economy, but because the cost/benefit tradeoff changes resulting in more beneficial projects. If unemployment is high, then the government can hire people at lower wages. If interest rates are low, then future benefits have a higher present value. Thus, a bad project during expansions becomes a good project during recessions. However, paying people to do nothing and trying to keep wages high completely nullifies this.

The main problem with the economy isn’t the lack of fiscal stimulus, it is the excessive use of bad government spending. If the government were to cut the wages of current employees and cut out a lot of the bad spending, then it could fund spending that actually has benefits.

1 comment:

  1. Isn't the US involved in a land war in Asia? Guessing the Defense Department never studied the Princess Bride... Or history.