Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ecomonic Stimulus: Do We Need More?

When the history of the recent financial crisis and Great Recession is written, the basic conclusion that will be presented is that a financial crisis can be ended and a major recession turned around if the government throws massive amounts of money at the economy.

And, even after all this money is thrown at the economy, the calls for more and more stimulus remain. The lead editorial in the New York Times this morning calls for additional stimulus: see “The Case for More Stimulus”, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/27/opinion/27tue1.html. The Times struggles to come up with legitimate proposals for additional spending and comes up with only two: extending unemployment benefits and a program to “ease the dire financial condition of the states.” The newspaper bails out with the claim that “To be highly effective as stimulus, cash aid must be targeted to needy populations.” But, the Times can’t do any better than that.

Spending is addictive. Once you start, it is hard to stop.

Another problem, however, is that it takes time for economic systems to work things out. Sure, a “cash for clunkers” program can goose up spending in August, but September turns into a bust.

Real programs take time because the programs not only have to be designed, resources have to be assembled, and the projects have to actually get started. Then the effects of the program must work their way through the economy. “Shovel ready” programs that have an immediate economic impact on a city or a region are really few and far between, as we have seen from the initial Obama stimulus package.

So, what time frame are we looking at for government stimulus to work its way through an economy? Maybe three to five years?

And, how do you measure the effectiveness of the government stimulus? The Wall Street Journal today attempts to provide some idea of how this question might be answered: see “The Challenge in Counting Stimulus Returns”, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125659862304009151.html#mod=todays_us_page_one. The conclusion of the author of the article is not encouraging.

Then there is the question about whether or not these programs replace or reduce other programs that would have been undertaken at this time. This is the question of the multiplier effect of government expenditures: is it above one or below one. Some of us believe that the multiplier for government spending is below 0.5. Not a very good bang for your buck!

And, what happens when people don’t see any results, or, at best, minor improvements? They start clamoring for more and more stimulus as the New York Times does today. Frustration sets in and people over-react to the situation. They want results and they want them now!

Yes, people and families are hurting. Yes, communities and states and regions are hurting. We don’t like to see the pain and would like to do something about it.

However, sometimes you can only do so much to improve the situation. The abuse that got the economy into this condition leaves no good choices for us to choose from in attempting to get out of the situation.

Was this crisis due to a failure of modern economics? I agree with the economist John Taylor who has written that this crisis actually vindicates the theory developed by modern economics. The problem was that the crisis was created by “a deviation of policy from the type of policy recommended by modern economics.” He goes on to write, “In other words, we have convincing evidence that interventionist government policies have done harm. The crisis did not occur because economic theory went wrong. It occurred because policy went wrong, because policy makers stopped paying attention to the economics.”

The conclusion one can therefore draw from this is that continuing “interventionist government policies” may not resolve the current problems but only exacerbate them. For example, if part of the problem is that families and businesses used too much debt and this helped to create the financial bust, then increasing the amount of debt outstanding in the economy is not going to resolve the problem, but may actually make it worse.

Well, throwing everything including the kitchen sink at the problem may bring the financial collapse to an end and help the economy to bottom out. But, what happens next? What happens after this massive amount of money is thrown at the economy?

For this we don’t have an answer although the New York Times does. “Ongoing economic problems are a sign that stimulus needs to be bolstered. Deficits are a serious issue, but the immediate need for stimulus trumps the longer-term need for deficit reduction. A self-reinforcing stretch of economic weakness would be far costlier than additional stimulus.”

More! That’s the answer!

And, people actually say that the talk about all the deficits is harmful to the situation. We are creating massive amounts of debt, but we can’t talk about them? Come on!!!

But, what if all the discussion about future deficits is causing people to spend less? What if the discussion about future deficits is causing people to fear that the Federal Reserve will not be able to reduce the size of its balance sheet and keep money and credit from soaring? What if the discussion about future deficits continues to result in a decline in the value of the dollar? What if the discussion about future deficits weakens American bargaining power among the rising nations in the world, China, Brazil, India, Russia, and continental Europe?

Should we stop talking about the deficit?

Or should be consider that maybe, just maybe, more is not the answer.

No comments: