By William Dupor, Assistant Vice President and Economist
The most recent U.S. expansion, however lackluster, entered its eighth year in June.1 In anticipation of the possibility (or perhaps inevitability) of another recession, observers have remarked on how and whether countercyclical fiscal policy should be used to combat an economic downturn….
Gauging Effects through Military Spending
Research Analyst Rodrigo Guerrero and I took up the issue of the efficacy of government spending at increasing employment. We looked specifically at over 120 years of U.S. military spending, which provides a kind of “natural experiment” for our analysis.
Looking at government spending more generally suffers from the problem that the spending may be correlated with economic activity: The government may spend more during a recession (as with ARRA) or more during an expansion (when tax revenues are high). This might bias the results, which economists call “an endogeneity bias.”
Military spending, on the other hand, is likely to be determined primarily by international geopolitical factors rather than the nation’s business cycle.
….We used a similar methodology and found that military spending shocks had a small effect on civilian employment. Following a policy change that began when the unemployment rate was high, if government spending increased by 1 percent of GDP, then total employment increased by between 0 percent and 0.15 percent. Following a policy change that began when the unemployment rate was low, the effect on employment was even smaller.
In the event of another recession, policymakers have a number of stabilization tools at their disposal, including quantitative easing, negative interest rates and tax relief. The research discussed above suggests that one other device, namely countercyclical government spending, may not be very effective, even when the economy is slack.
I think the authors of this research come to the wrong conclusion. Instead they should have concluded that military spending is not very effective in creating jobs.
Military spending provides no lasting benefit to the economy in terms of tax revenue or saleable assets, leaving future taxpayers with public debt and no means of repayment. Other than an austerity budget which would risk another recession.
Whereas infrastructure projects can be selected on their ability to generate market-related returns on investment, providing revenue to service the public debt incurred…..and saleable assets that can be used to repay debt.
But there are two caveats.
First, project selection must not be a political decision. Else projects likely to win votes will be selected ahead of those that generate decent financial returns.
Second, the private sector must have skin in the game to ensure that #1 is adhered to. Also to reduce cost blowouts. Private companies are not immune to blowouts but government projects are in a league of their own.
The added benefit of infrastructure spending is the free lunch government gets from reduced unemployment benefits. Money they would have spent anyway is now put to a more productive use.