Economic Stimulus: Timing is Everything

When I took macroeconomics in college way back in the 70’s, people actually believed in Keynesian economic theory. It was in the textbooks. One of the problems with government attempting to stimulate the economy the Keynesian way is the matter of timing. By the time we’re sure we’re in a recession, Congress passes laws, and the money is spent, the economy may be already out of the recession. Then, all the stimulus of the spending takes effect, the economy becomes overheated, and inflation becomes a problem. So goes the theory, anyway. This is only one of the problems inherent in the government trying to manage the economy. A Wall Street Journal column explains:

According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, a mere $26 billion of the House stimulus bill’s $355 billion in new spending would actually be spent in the current fiscal year, and just $110 billion would be spent by the end of 2010. This is highly embarrassing given that Congress’s justification for passing this bill so urgently is to help the economy right now, if not sooner.

The stimulus bill is also a time machine in the sense that it’s based on an old, and largely discredited, economic theory. As Harvard economist Robert Barro pointed out on these pages last Thursday, the “stimulus” claim is based on something called the Keynesian “multiplier,” which is that each $1 of spending the government “injects” into the economy yields 1.5 times that in greater output. There’s little evidence to support this theory, but you have to admire its beauty because it assumes the government can create wealth out of thin air. If it were true, the government should spend $10 trillion and we’d all live in paradise.

See The Stimulus Time Machine, January 26, 2009 Wall Street Journal


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