Thoughts on Stimulus, UPDATED

The debate over stimulus is growing quite divergent. First, there is understandable disagreement about the nature of stimulus policies in and of themselves. Second, the is a growing debate as to whether or not the Obama stimulus plan itself will be successful. (I have previously offered my thoughts on stimulus here.)

The first debate is laid out explicitly by Robert Barro, who in today’s WSJ discusses the multiplier associated with government spending:

Back in the 1980s, many commentators ridiculed as voodoo economics the extreme supply-side view that across-the-board cuts in income-tax rates might raise overall tax revenues. Now we have the extreme demand-side view that the so-called “multiplier” effect of government spending on economic output is greater than one — Team Obama is reportedly using a number around 1.5.

To think about what this means, first assume that the multiplier was 1.0. In this case, an increase by one unit in government purchases and, thereby, in the aggregate demand for goods would lead to an increase by one unit in real gross domestic product (GDP). Thus, the added public goods are essentially free to society. If the government buys another airplane or bridge, the economy’s total output expands by enough to create the airplane or bridge without requiring a cut in anyone’s consumption or investment.

The explanation for this magic is that idle resources — unemployed labor and capital — are put to work to produce the added goods and services.

If the multiplier is greater than 1.0, as is apparently assumed by Team Obama, the process is even more wonderful. In this case, real GDP rises by more than the increase in government purchases. Thus, in addition to the free airplane or bridge, we also have more goods and services left over to raise private consumption or investment. In this scenario, the added government spending is a good idea even if the bridge goes to nowhere, or if public employees are just filling useless holes. Of course, if this mechanism is genuine, one might ask why the government should stop with only $1 trillion of added purchases.

Barro then uses World War II spending to estimate the multiplier effect of government spending. What he finds is that the multiplier for this period is about 0.8. What this means is that for every $1 that the government spent, GDP increased by $0.80. For times of peace, he finds that the multiplier is statistically insignificantly different from zero (we cannot reject the hypothesis of a complete crowding out of private expenditure, for non-econ nerds). Indeed, this is consistent with Hayek’s critique of Keynesian policies. Hayek pointed out that while Keynes criticized classical economists for assuming full employment, Keynes was implicitly assuming unemployment of resources.

Barro’s peacetime finds warrant further investigation as he does not state whether this measurement is for all periods or times of less than full employment as well as whether he is referring to temporary or permanent government purchases. However, it is clear that his findings regarding World War II fail to satisfy the ceteris paribus assumption needed for such analysis. As Paul Krugman explains:

Consumer goods were rationed; people were urged to restrain their spending to make resources available for the war effort. Oh, and the economy was at full employment — and then some. Rosie the Riveter, anyone? I can’t quite imagine the mindset that leads someone to forget all this, and think that you can use World War II to estimate the multiplier that might prevail in an underemployed, rationing-free economy.

Nonetheless, the debate about the multiplier is perhaps the important question regarding the stimulus package and despite the possible flaw in using World War II data, I think that Barro’s conclusion regarding the multiplier being below 1 is likely correct. After all, I don’t think that we can make the claim that there is no crowd out effect or that the multiplier overwhelms any crowding out.

On this point, Casey Mulligan has offered some interesting thoughts. His main conclusion is as follows:

Government spending will reduce private spending virtually anywhere it may be targeted. The case for government spending should thus be made on its intrinsic, not stimulation, value.

I think that this is perhaps the best way of thinking about stimulus. I agree with Barro and Mulligan in that the multiplier is likely between 0 and 1. I do not buy the argument that it is zero in the current environment. Thus, if it is close to one, there is an argument that can be made for spending based on its intrinsic value. For example, the modernization of government facilities and the rebuilding of infrastructure represent these types of ideas. Ultimately, the multiplier is dependent upon the spending itself. For example, if spending is temporary (as is implied in the examples just given) the multiplier is likely to be larger than if spending is permanent. In the latter case, there is substantial reason to believe that the multiplier is quite small and perhaps near zero.

This brings us to the question as to the likelihood of success of the Obama stimulus package. Mulligan warns of the particular aims of the stimulus:

Despite the recent increase in unemployment rates, I see little reason why the multiplier situation is realistic. For example, President Obama’s economists have explained that about half of the jobs they plan to create (both directly and indirectly) are for women. But the large majority of this recession’s employment reduction has been among men. Thus, the Obama spending plan is not intended to primarily draw on the pool of people unemployed in this recession.

President Obama has a vision to spend more on health care, largely for its intrinsic value. Its stimulation value is minimal because unemployment is low in that sector; health sector employment has actually increased every single month during this recession.

I am not optimistic about stimulus in terms of lifting us out of the recession and, in particular, I am not optimistic about many aspects of the Obama stimulus plan. Further, the assumption of a multiplier of 1.5 is incredibly unlikely. I would much rather see meaningful tax reductions (e.g. lower marginal rates, lower corporate tax rates).

UPDATE: There has been a great deal of discussion in the blogosphere surrounding the nature of the rhetoric, especially with regards to Krugman’s comment that Barro’s analysis was “boneheaded.” In this respect, I think that Tyler Cowen’s comments sufficiently summarize my view:

Either way you cut it, there aren’t any boneheads in the room.

Indeed. After all, Robert Barro essentially wrote the book on government from a macro perspective. The tone of the debate is trending down and I think that we would all do well raise the level of discourse to a respectful tone.

Again, my view (free of name-calling) is that:

1. Stimulus will not get us out of the Depression.

2. The multiplier for government spending is likely between 0 and 1, which means that $1 spent by the government results in less than a $1 increase in real GDP.

3. Given (2), the proponents of the stimulus package must make their proposals based on intrinsic value rather than on promises that are impossible to keep. On this point, Barro is right on, “Back in the 1980s, many commentators ridiculed as voodoo economics the extreme supply-side view that across-the-board cuts in income-tax rates might raise overall tax revenues. Now we have the extreme demand-side view that the so-called ‘multiplier’ effect of government spending on economic output is greater than one — Team Obama is reportedly using a number around 1.5.”

3 responses to “Thoughts on Stimulus, UPDATED

  1. The Barro-Krugman debate on the multiplier may well be just another specification problem. The multiplier is in the reduced-form equation, but the identity Y=C+I+G gets in the way, unless you can control for the other exogenous elements, and use only the data when there is unemployment. Krugman has a very good point, since WWII was not one of unemployment but of excess demand.

  2. Pingback: An Interview With Robert Barro « The Everyday Economist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s