UCLA economist Brad DeLong explains how America can, in fact, spend our way to prosperity.
The US government can currently borrow for 30 years at a real (inflation-adjusted) interest rate of 1% per year. Suppose that the US government were to borrow an extra $500 billion over the next two years and spend it on infrastructure – even unproductively, on projects for which the social rate of return is a measly 25% per year. Suppose that – as seems to be the case – the simple Keynesian government-expenditure multiplier on this spending is only two.With the Teabaggers in control of congress, none of those options will even be considered. Instead, the Pain Caucus will reign supreme and our economy will continue it's death spiral. Doomed to repeat the past, we'll slide into irrelevance as the Chinese Dragon ascends.
In that case, the $500 billion of extra federal infrastructure spending over the next two years would produce $1 trillion of extra output of goods and services, generate approximately seven million person-years of extra employment, and push down the unemployment rate by two percentage points in each of those years. And, with tighter labor-force attachment on the part of those who have jobs, the unemployment rate thereafter would likely be about 0.1 percentage points lower in the indefinite future.
So, what are the likely costs of an extra $500 billion in infrastructure spending over the next two years?
For starters, the $500 billion of extra government spending would likely be offset by $300 billion of increased tax collections from higher economic activity. So the net result would be a $200 billion increase in the national debt. American taxpayers would then have to pay $2 billion a year in real interest on that extra national debt over the next 30 years, and then pay off or roll over the entire $200 billion.
The $40 billion a year of higher economic activity would, however, generate roughly $10 billion a year in additional tax revenue. Using some of it to pay the real interest on the debt and saving the rest would mean that when the bill comes due, the tax-financed reserves generated by the healthier economy would be more than enough to pay off the additional national debt.
In other words, taxpayers win, because the benefits from the healthier economy would more than compensate for the costs of servicing the higher national debt, enabling the government to provide more services without raising tax rates. Households win, too, because they get to buy more and nicer things with their incomes. Companies win, because goods and workers get to use the improved infrastructure. The unemployed win, because some of them get jobs. And even bond investors win, because they get their money back, with the interest for which they contracted.