Daily Archives: October 12, 2011
Infrastructure investment is a state responsibility
By Keith Yost
Last week, President Obama unveiled a $447 billion spending plan. Notice I say “spending plan,” rather than “stimulus plan” or “jobs plan,” because there is a difference. None of the plan’s components, which consist of roughly $250 billion in payroll tax cuts, $60 billion in unemployment insurance, and $140 billion to fund infrastructure (most of it going to a national infrastructure investment bank), can be considered significantly stimulative, and without stimulus, we’re unlikely to see many new jobs.
The plan’s unemployment benefits and tax cuts are largely extensions of existing measures — our economic situation would be much worse if the cuts and benefits were allowed to expire, but these half-measures are not going to push us out of our current, miserable trajectory. And the infrastructure bank promises very little spending in the short term; it’s not an institution tasked with finding shovel-ready, stimulative projects, even if such things existed. This is quite plainly a spending plan in which Obama has tied a pet project that he thinks deserves money (the infrastructure bank) to something that Republicans find fairly unobjectionable.
As a political matter, the future of the plan seems pretty straightforward: Republicans will strip out the infrastructure bits and pass the rest, judging (correctly) that the American public isn’t going to assign blame for the whole economy to the GOP just because they blocked one of Obama’s minor economic proposals. The president probably even prefers it this way because an actual infrastructure bank wouldn’t do much in the short term to help Obama keep his job, but the idea of an infrastructure bank could prove useful on the campaign trail.
That leaves just one question: who is right here? Is an infrastructure bank an idea whose time has come, or is it a dud?
At first glance, a national campaign to invest in infrastructure isn’t a bad proposition. The returns to investment on infrastructure aren’t very impressive, but with the government able to borrow money at two percent interest, and with labor and materials costs at extreme lows, it doesn’t take a very high return to justify infrastructure spending.
On deeper inspection however, a national infrastructure bank is a fatally flawed idea, for one simple reason: forcing the citizens of Texas to pay for a high speed rail line from San Diego to Sacramento is bad government. It invites corruption, pork barrel politics, and misallocation of our society’s resources.
The citizens of, say, Ohio are and will always be in a better position to decide whether it is worth the money to repair a bridge or school in their state. Offering to let them pay for their projects with someone else’s money is not going to lead to better decision-making— instead, it will lead states to cut their own infrastructure spending and turn their beggars cup to the federal government. It will incentive states to represent their infrastructure as worse than it actually is, and pretend that solutions are cheaper than they actually are. And because it isn’t their money at stake, states will have even less inclination than usual to make sure that the projects are managed correctly. The real key to a state’s economic success won’t be the wise decision-making of its leaders, it will be its ability to lobby the federal government for special treatment and trade favors with the party in power.
Perhaps in a few instances, investment in infrastructure at the national level makes sense. Air traffic control, or an interstate network make sense as matters for the national government to manage. But bridges, schools, high speed rail lines, and the vast majority of the projects Obama touts as within the purview of his national infrastructure campaign are best managed at the state or local level. It’s a conclusion so obvious that the idea of national control raises immediate suspicion. Does Obama plan to use the bank to bestow patronage on his supporters (particularly labor unions)? Or did he really manage to forget that state governments already have the power to levy taxes and make repairs?
Democratic activists are thrilled with Obama’s supposedly new “toughness.” But getting tough is only a good strategy if you’ve got an idea that’s actually worth fighting for. Two weeks from now, every leading Republican is going to have worked out the obvious counter-argument to a national infrastructure bank, and two weeks after that they’re going to have integrated the bank into their stump speeches as yet another example of intellectually bankrupt federal overreach.
- Is Obama’s National Infrastructure Bank the Answer on Jobs? (usnews.com)
- No national infrastructure investment bank (tech.mit.edu)
The conservative argument against President Obama’s policies got a boost from an unexpected place Monday: the Nobel Prize committee.
Thomas Sargent, who with Christopher Sims won this year’s Nobel Prize for economics, was rewarded for a body of work that demonstrates the folly of Obamanomics. While it’s not always easy to translate the words of Nobel-winning economists into terms that into the political debates of the day, Sargent spoke plainly enough in an interview last year with Art Rolnick of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. (H/T: Ira Stoll at Reason’s Hit and Run blog.)
On taxes (from the interviewer’s summary of Sargent’s “rational expectations” work):
[P]olicymakers can’t manipulate the economy by systematically “tricking” people with policy surprises. Central banks, for example, can’t permanently lower unemployment by easing monetary policy…because people will (rationally) anticipate higher future inflation and will (strategically) insist on higher wages for their labor and higher interest rates for their capital.
“Tricking” is a good way to describe the desired effect of Obama’s policies: The idea behind his original “Making Work Pay” tax cut was that it would be so small that workers wouldn’t even notice the extra cash in their paychecks, and therefore wouldn’t be tempted to save it rather than spend it.
Along with Milton Friedman’s permanent income hypothesis, Sargent’s theory helps us understand why all tax cuts are not created equal: A temporary payroll tax cut provides little incentive for employers to hire, or for workers to spend more, when longer-term tax increases loom over the horizon. That’s why it’s absurd for Obama to talk about using such tax cuts to stimulate the economy, then talk about raising taxes a year or two from now, and then act surprised that job growth has been slow.
On the 2009 stimulus itself:
The calculations that I have seen supporting the stimulus package are back-of-the-envelope ones that ignore what we have learned in the last 60 years of macroeconomic research.
But the most important thing Sargent might have said in the interview, given that long-term joblessness is arguably the biggest long-term economic problem America faces, had to do with social safety nets, particularly for unemployment benefits:
[W]hen people now become unemployed, they’re taking a more or less permanent hit to their level of human capital…. We have a theory that people build up human capital while they’re working on a job, but lose human capital when they’re displaced from a job. … Unemployment compensation systems typically award you compensation that’s linked to your earnings on your last job; those past earnings reflect your past human capital, not your current opportunities or current human capital. That can make collecting unemployment compensation at rates reflecting your past (and now obsolete) human capital more desirable than accepting a job whose earnings reflect a return on your current depreciated level of human capital. …
The prospect that concerns me might sound like I’m hardhearted, but that’s just the opposite of my feelings. What you’ve seen in the recent recession — and it’s quite natural because it’s been so severe — is a tendency of Congress to expand unemployment benefits, over and over again. What [our] theory tells us is that if, in the United States, we create a system where unemployment and disability benefits are permanently extended in their generosity and their duration, we will inadvertently put ourselves into the situation that much of Europe has suffered for three decades.
These extensions might be done, Sargent says, “out of the best of motives,” but they are still likely to have a perverse result. Now, not all of the long-term unemployed are refusing jobs available to them. But to the degree unemployment benefits encourage someone to stay out of work a little longer than necessary, hoping a better opportunity will come along, they are doing that person a disservice in the long run.
What’s more, they are delaying our coming to grips with the fact that the world has changed in ways that mean we won’t just pick back up where we left off. Sargent argues that the erosion of a worker’s skills has become worse during the last 30 years because of “various technological changes going under the umbrella name of ‘globalization.’ ” Like Obama’s stimulus spending, the continual extensions of unemployment benefits require an assumption that better times are on the way, and all that is needed is a government-provided bridge to close the gap between now and then.
If that assumption is wrong, however, and more structural economic changes are needed, government spending and benefits are not going to bridge that gap. They just might widen it.
– By Kyle Wingfield
- Americans Sargent, Sims share economics Nobel (boston.com)
- Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims win Nobel economics prize (guardian.co.uk)
- Americans Sargent, Sims win Nobel economics prize (usatoday.com)