Friday, June 11, 2010

The Folly of Fiscal Stimulus

by Mario Rizzo

More than thirty-five years have passed since Friedrich Hayek said in his Nobel speech, “The Pretence of Knowledge” (1974):

“The theory which has been guiding monetary and financial policy during the last thirty years… consists in the assertion that there exists a simple positive correlation between total employment and the size of the aggregate demand for goods and services; it leads to the belief that we can permanently assure full employment by maintaining total money expenditure at an appropriate level.”
Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong and others are now calling for bigger and better stimulus in the hopes of decreasing unemployment more rapidly. Most of this is wishful thinking or, should I say, value-signaling. If you care about the poor and middle class, if you realize the irreparable harm that long periods (months, years?) of unemployment may cause, if you recognize the many unmet public sector needs we have, you would doubtless advocate more fiscal stimulus. In an equation: Good Person = Advocate of More Fiscal Stimulus.

How tiresome all this is. The political-power aggrandizement crowd meets the special interests, the economically ignorant, and the na├»ve value-signalers to concoct more spending schemes. Oh yes, let’s also throw in well-meaning but wrong economists.

Let us take this opportunity to think more carefully about the idea of fiscal stimulus and its connection to reducing cyclical unemployment. The argument seems to rest on a kind of “jump start” phenomenon. Spend money and recipients will spend, and the multiplier takes over. Aggregate income will rise and jobs will materialize.

There are many objections to this simple perspective that modern economists (and classical ones) have advanced. There is no need to review those in any detail here. However, they include such factors as: offsetting reductions in spending as people save more in anticipation of tax increases, decreases in future growth because of higher interest rates later, and inflation that cancels any increase in real aggregate demand.

The argument that Hayek made in his Nobel speech severs the connection between aggregate demand and employment. While it is no doubt true that specific demands will affect employment in specific industries or sectors, it does not follow that “demand in general” is relevant outside a deflationary context.

The key issue is the sustainability of demands. Suppose the government spends more on construction projects. It must bid those resources away from other industries and out of “idleness” (which can mean search activity oriented to finding otherwise-sustainable employment). What will be the result for employment of labor?

It makes little sense for suppliers and other industries affected by the increase in construction spending to increase hiring significantly if they do not believe that the particular spending patterns they observe are sustainable or if they have doubts about their sustainability. Firms will increase output mainly by utilizing existing inputs more intensively or by temporarily hiring more labor.

Read the rest here.

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