Policy makers in Washington and other capitals around the world are debating whether to implement another round of stimulus spending to combat high unemployment and sputtering growth rates. But before they leap, they should take a good hard look at how that worked the first time around.
It worked miserably, as indicated by the table nearby, which shows increases in government spending from 2007 to 2009 and subsequent changes in GDP growth rates. Of the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations, those with the largest spending spurts from 2007 to 2009 saw the least growth in GDP rates before and after the stimulus.
The four nations—Estonia, Ireland, the Slovak Republic and Finland—with the biggest stimulus programs had the steepest declines in growth. The United States was no different, with greater spending (up 7.3%) followed by far lower growth rates (down 8.4%).
Still, the debate rages between those who espouse stimulus spending as a remedy for our weak economy and those who argue it is the cause of our current malaise. The numbers at stake aren't small. Federal government spending as a share of GDP rose to a high of 27.3% in 2009 from 21.4% in late 2007. This increase is virtually all stimulus spending, including add-ons to the agricultural and housing bills in 2007, the $600 per capita tax rebate in 2008, the TARP and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bailouts, "cash for clunkers," additional mortgage relief subsidies and, of course, President Obama's $860 billion stimulus plan that promised to deliver unemployment rates below 6% by now. Stimulus spending over the past five years totaled more than $4 trillion.
If you believe, as I do, that the macro economy is the sum total of all of its micro parts, then stimulus spending really doesn't make much sense. In essence, it's when government takes additional resources beyond what it would otherwise take from one group of people (usually the people who produced the resources) and then gives those resources to another group of people (often to non-workers and non-producers).
Often as not, the qualification for receiving stimulus funds is the absence of work or income—such as banks and companies that fail, solar energy companies that can't make it on their own, unemployment benefits and the like. Quite simply, government taxing people more who work and then giving more money to people who don't work is a surefire recipe for less work, less output and more unemployment.