Friday, December 26, 2008

Backus on Spending Stimulus

In response to a previous post, NYU econ prof David Backus sends me his views of a spending stimulus:


I was surprised to see you mentioned as the only stimulus skeptic the Obama team could find. If you'd like company, let me add my name to the list.

I'd label myself, if not a skeptic, then at least ambivalent. It's not that I'm convinced stimulus is a bad idea, but that economics isn't a precise science: we don't know for sure that a stimulus package will cure what ails us. Here are some reasons for doubt, and I'm sure you and your readers have others:

  • Hard to do. It's not easy to spend large amounts of new money quickly. Harder still to do it in a way that creates good value for society and doesn't bring out the worst in our politicians. (I can hear Jon Stewart on the Daily Show: "Where's Ted Stevens when we need him?")
  • Bad timing. Right now, most forecasts call for continued shrinkage in the first half of 2009, modest growth in the second half, when the stimulus starts to come online, and faster growth in 2010, when spending hits high gear. This is, of course, the classic argument against countercyclical fiscal policy: it's hard to get the timing right.
  • Small multiplier. Let us say that for every dollar of extra government spending, GDP goes up m dollars, where "m" is the multiplier. Undergraduate textbooks, including your favorite, sometimes suggest m is large. The evidence is fuzzy, to be sure, but to me it suggests a multiplier around one, maybe smaller. Even stimulus cheerleader Paul Krugman only claims 1.1. If that's the case, the impact of government spending (say 700b over two years) is barely enough to reverse the decline in GDP we expect to see over the next two quarters.
  • Long-term budget issues. I don't spend much time in Washington, but I thought the mainstream view among government economists was that our retirement and health-care programs were likely to bust the budget over the next 2-3 decades. Recent directors of the CBO under both Republican and Democratic Congresses have made this point, and I hope I wasn't the only one listening. The US is not Argentina, but it still seems a little incongruous to advocate massive increases in spending when the long-term problem is paying for spending already on the
  • It's the financial system, stupid. Japan in the 1990s is a Rorshach test for macroeconomists, so I can't claim everyone sees this as I do. But my take (borrowed from Anil Kashyap) is that Japan demonstrated that the real issue in financial crises is the financial system. If we don't fix it, no amount of fiscal stimulus will make much difference. That's one of the reasons I'm optimistic about the US right now: unlike Japan, we faced our problems, ugly as they were, and have acted decisively to correct them.

What would I do? I'd prefer to remain in my comfortable office at NYU, but if forced to make a recommendation, I guess I'd say the following: Go ahead, spend a few hundred billion over the next two years; it may help, especially if the economy performs worse than we expect. But spend it on things that have clear social value. At the same time, try to make some progress on the long-term spending issues built into our current retirement and health-care systems. That won't be nearly as popular as spending money now, but it's an opportunity to show some real leadership. And make sure you keep your eyes on the financial system: if the banks don't recover, none of us will. Good luck!


Thanks, Dave, for sharing your views.