Tag Archives: Lawrence Summers

Does stimulus displace private economic activity?

According to Keynesian economic theory, many recessions have little or nothing to do with underlying (structural) economic problems. Instead, recessions are the result of a crisis in confidence. People are simply freaked out and therefore not spending. And when they are not spending, others are not earning income and so the economy suffers.

Keynesians argue that the government can cure this crisis in confidence by borrowing (deficit spending) to fund an increase in government purchases. If people are too freaked out to spend, the logic goes, the government can spend for them. And this spending has a multiplier effect, rippling throughout the economy.

You might be wondering how the government is able to get something for nothing. Government has to borrow the resources from the private economy, doesn’t that mean that the government is competing with private borrowers who have their own plans to invest in the economy? Doesn’t that mean that government investment displaces or crowds-out private investment? The Keynesians, being clever economists, have an answer for this. Their answer is that during a recession there are “idle resources.” That is, individuals and businesses are too freaked out to undertake any major investments and so there is money just lying around. The government can borrow it without displacing any private activity.

Most Keynesians (and by this I mean the economists, not most politicians and pundits who subscribe to Keynesian theory) recognize that this is only a short term phenomenon. Obviously, there comes a time when government borrowing will, indeed, displace private economic activity. That’s why Keynesians believe that the multiplier is larger during a recession and its why they counsel that stimulus should be “timely, targeted, and temporary,” as Lawrence Summers famously put it in December 2007.

Leaving aside the question of whether government can effectively spend the money, is it true that the government purchases multiplier is larger during recessions? A new paper by Michael Owyang (St. Louis Fed), Sarah Zubairy (Bank of Canada) and Valerie Ramey (UCSD) examines this question:

A key question that has arisen during recent debates is whether government spending multipliers are larger during times when resources are idle. This paper seeks to shed light on this question by analyzing new quarterly historical data covering multiple large wars and depressions in the U.S. and Canada. Using an extension of Ramey’s (2011) military news series and Jordà’s (2005) method for estimating impulse responses, we find no evidence that multipliers are greater during periods of high unemployment in the U.S. In every case, the estimated multipliers are below unity. We do find some evidence of higher multipliers during periods of slack in Canada, with some multipliers above unity.

Remember, the way the government calculates GDP, $1.00 in government purchases, automatically increases measured GDP. So a multiplier “below unity” (<1) implies that government purchases displace private economic activity, that stimulus shrinks the private economy.

The paper can be found here.

The Political Economy of Infrastructure Stimulus

Economists have long recognized the value of infrastructure. Roads, bridges, airports, canals, and other projects are the conduits through which goods are exchanged. In many circumstances, private firms can and should be allowed to provide this infrastructure. But in other cases, there may be a role for public provision at the local level. But whatever its merits, infrastructure spending is not likely to provide much of a stimulus.

That is my colleague, Veronique de Rugy, and me. In our latest working paper, we examine the macroeconomic literature on infrastructure stimulus. In my view, the most significant problems with stimulus have less to do with macroeconomic theory and more to do with its real-world application. Lawrence Summers, an eminent Keynesian famously noted at a Brookings event a few years ago that:

Fiscal stimulus is critical but could be counterproductive if it is not timely, targeted and temporary.

In the real world, it seems that most stimulus—especially infrastructure-type stimulus—fails one or more of these tests.

The bottom line: even if it did work in theory, the political apparatus seems incapable of implementing Keynesian stimulus in the ways that Keynesians want them to. That seems to explain why Lord Keynes himself grew skeptical of the policy tool. Near the end of his life he wrote:

Organized public works, at home and abroad, may be the right cure for a chronic tendency to a deficiency of effective demand. But they are not capable of sufficiently rapid organization (and above all cannot be reversed or undone at a later date), to be the most serviceable instrument for the prevention of the trade cycle.

Here is Veronique on our piece.

Is Infrastructure Spending Stimulative?

Wyatt Andrews of CBS News writes:

When Moody’s studied the 2009 stimulus package, infrastructure spending rated high. For every dollar spent, $1.44 was returned to the economy.

The problem with this is that it assumes that infrastructure projects will be executed in exactly the way that Keynesian theorists say that they ought to be (“timely, targeted, and temporary” in Lawrence Summers’s words).

That might work on a blackboard or in an (incomplete) computer model, but not in the real world. In the real world, infrastructure projects involve planning, bidding, contracting, construction, and evaluation. All of this takes time, especially if you want to make sure the money is spent wisely (remember, it also must be properly “targeted” or else it won’t work).

And, indeed, as an emperical fact of life, it does seem to take time. According to the CBO:

[F]or major infrastructure projects supported by the federal government, such as highway construction and activities of the Army Corps of Engineers, initial outlays usually total less than 25 percent of the funding provided in a given year. For large projects, the initial rate of spending can be significantly lower than 25 percent.

When macroeconomists account for the delays that are inherent in these types of projects, they arrive at exactly the opposite conclusion of Moody’s. For example, a recent International Monetary Fund paper by Eric Leeper, Todd Walker and Shu-Chun Yang found: Implementation delays can produce small or even negative labor and output responses.” Moreover, these “Implementation delays can postpone the intended economic stimulus and may even worsen the downturn in the short run.”

This helps explain why Lord Keynes himself became a skeptic of these types of projects later in life.  In 1942 he wrote:

Organized public works…may be the right cure for a chronic tendency to a deficiency of effective demand.  But hey are not capable of sufficiently rapid organization (and above all cannot be reversed or undone at a later date), to be the most serviceable instrument for the prevention of the trade cycle.