Government Stimulus in a Recession Can Do Good
The Wall Street Journal’s weekend editorial “It Isn’t Working” lamented that “three years of spending and monetary stimulus haven’t helped jobs”. While making a number of valid points about lack of confidence and concern over costs as factors inhibiting firms from rehiring, it failed to point out that the Federal Government has provided a significant amount of valuable and essential stimulus to the economy with an important part of the stimulus program – namely, in refurbishing the highways.All across New England (and I hear from friends around the country that the same is true in almost every state) there are thousands of private sector companies and individuals employed in long overdue construction and maintenance of our vast highway system. It is astonishing that it took an unprecedentedly deep recession to act as the catalyst in this matter. It is in fact a duty of our Federal Government, as the overseer of matters of interstate commerce, to keep our interstate highway system in proper order.So it is fair to say that the stimulus program has indeed had some very salutary impact on both employment and on the transportation grid that is vital to the health of commerce in this country. The problem is that this critical obligation of the U.S. Government was funded only as an emergency measure in response to an attempt to provide temporary funds to tie the economy over until the private sector could get back on its feet. But in fact, the private sector on its own initiative does not and cannot undertake the indispensable maintenance of our roads and bridges. This spending which supplements the Highway Trust Fund should be a core element of the appropriation voted on by Congress each year. It should not be part of an emergency stimulus bill.Highway construction, maintenance and repair are obligations of our government, just as the maintenance of capital plant and equipment are the obligation of private sector companies who produce goods. Since the invention of the wheel, successful economies have understood the unbreakable linkage between transport and safe roadways. It is a disgrace that the last several congresses and numerous administrations have declined to address the growing backlog of crumbling interstate infrastructure in favor of other spending.Of course addressing the issue now begs the question of where the funds will be found. For starters, Congress could take all the stimulus money it earmarked for future projects that will do nothing to get us out of the current economic malaise and reallocate those funds to the here and now, making a significant down payment on our obligation by allowing highway refurbishment to continue well beyond its current scope. Those private sector jobs include architects, structural and transportation engineers, surveyors, construction workers and all manner of hi-tech modeling and planning operations that utilize the skills already developed in all fifty states. Many of these should be permanent jobs, not the whimsical beneficence of a nervous congress as a one-time event.Fiscal stimulus is an important and valuable economic remedy that should indeed be employed by the Federal Government during periods of recession: the element of its timing makes it far more valuable to the national economy than routine discretionary outlays. Moreover, any addition to the existing deficit resulting such an investment is not inherently harmful to either the long term health of the economy or to the Government’s balance sheet.During the recent recession and its timidly emerging recovery, I would argue that the Government has taken some very specific and importantly appropriate stimulative steps, and I would argue also that it should both extend that spending, particularly infrastructure spending and offer incentives – mainly through tax relief to small businesses – to enable them to grow and create new jobs.Our gargantuan and staggering Federal budget deficit is a problem of a different nature, tied to gigantic issues as financing two wars with borrowed money, an aging population whose health care costs will increasingly fall on the shoulders of a younger and smaller workforce, and a social security system that urgently needs adjustment. Tackling those problems is essential if we are to reduce much less eliminate the deficit.In the meantime, the roads and bridges that comprise the backbone of our continental economy must continue to be restored.