Tossing the Economy into the Trough9 February 2009
Any time that the state spends money, there is some cost to the economy.
The state can tax, in which case the cost is
obvious. But I put
obvious in quotation marks here, because people don't seem to think past the fact that money is taken, without much thinking that the value of money per se is its purchasing power.
The state can
print money, issuing new currency to fund its expenditures. The cost here comes because
In many modern states,
printing money is made to look like borrowing, whereïn the ostensible borrowing is from a central bank, a special creature of the state, which
prints money and uses this to make the loan to the state.
But the state may also more genuinely borrow money (especially when officials of the central bank think this better than
printing more) in the financial markets. In this case, borrowing by the state shifts out the demand curve for loanable funds. Unless the supply curve for loanable funds were perfectly elastic, so that any amount of funds would be made available by lenders at the prevailing price — the rate of interest — that price will go up.
When people lose purchasing power to taxation or to an over-all increase in prices, they reduce purchases of goods and of services, and they save less, so that funds for investment are decreased, and hence investment is decreased. When the price of borrowing is increased, people borrow less for consumer purchases and less for investment. So whenever the state spends, no matter whether it taxes, inflates, or borrows, that spending takes a piece of the economy. Whether there is a net cost turns upon whether the activity funded by state spending is somehow more productive than the private activity that it has crowded-out.
As I have explained, state allocation of resources can be more productive only if private provision is hampered by transactions costs, and the effects of those transactions costs are greater than the combined effects of state transactions costs (
red tape and all that) and the loss of economic coördination which results from substituting guess-work for market prices.
Okay, so this gets me to these
stimulus bills in the United States legislature. Various numbers are associated with various versions, but the bill that left the House of Representatives was for about 800 billion dollars. And various commentators, both conservatives at institutions such as the Wall Street Journal and social democrats (
liberals) at institutions such as NPR, have noted that only about one-eighth of the projects in that bill could be reasonably claimed to be stimulus, with the rest just being pork-barrel projects. Regardless of whether we buy-into the Keynesian hopes for about $100,000,000,000, the loss to the economy associated with about $700,000,000,000 in
pork will be vastly greater.
It was claimed that a stimulus bill was necessary because the economy is tanking. The word
depression is being bandied-about. And, yet, a majority in Congress and the President are pushing what will plainly be a massive hit on the economy.
To explain the behavior of these parties, we could offer various hypotheses. Many politicians are simply great fools; some politicians might believe that we are indeed on the cusp of an economic disaster, but be so greedy for the political gains associated with these projects that they just won't allow themselves to think. Other politicians might not believe the talk of economic crisis, but be knaves who participate in it, creäting a smokescreen behind which to seek much the same gains as are the fools. Finally, some of these politicians might both genuinely believe that the economic crisis is quite dire, and recognize that a
stimulus like those proposed will be greatly damaging, but expect that the effects of the bill can be blamed on other things, especially upon what remains of the market economy, so that those effects become an excuse for even greater expansion of state power.
With regard to one particular politician, the President, I don't at all think that he's so great a fool as to misunderstand what a
stimulus bill that is about 7/8
pork would do. He knows that he's pushing a hit on the economy. I don't know whether he is amongst the knaves who don't really believe that the economic situation is all that dire, or amongst those who want to engineer a greater crisis in order to have a greater excuse to technocratically restructure the economy. But when the President speaks of recovery as taking years rather than months, I worry that he is not merely lowering expectations to reduce future criticism, but revealing more ambitious plans.