When revenue shrinks by 1 percent of GDP and spending increases by 51 percent over 10 months, you get a $2.8 trillion deficit. That figure, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is significantly larger than the deficit Uncle Sam accumulated over the first 10 months of 2019. Yet, many in Congress demand that even more spending be enacted in the name of stimulating the economy.
More spending means more debt and more future taxes. That much we know. What we also know is that the calls for sustained spending—in the form of unemployment checks, individual stimulus checks, small-business grants, and payroll tax cuts—which are made regularly in newspapers, political speeches, and partisan punditry, are overblown to stay the least. The idea here is that if Uncle Sam continues paying people to stay home, their consumption will continue, and the economy will grow.
These calls are based explicitly or implicitly on the belief in an all-powerful federal spending multiplier, or the idea that if the government spends one dollar, the economy will grow by more than a dollar.
That's right; the belief is that when the government takes a dollar out of your pocket, puts that dollar through the political process, and decides where to spend it (based on input from special interest groups), the economy will somehow return more money in growth than the money invested, even after Washington bureaucrats take their cut. It's magic! Sadly, these arguments ignore recent empirical evidence that the costs of increased government spending far outweigh the benefits to the economy.
For starters, contrary to the claims of pro-government spending proponents, economists are far from having reached a consensus about the actual return on government spending. While some economists find that a dollar spent by the government generates more of a return than the dollar spent, others find that the return is less than one dollar. And yet others find that if you take into account the future taxes needed to pay for the dollar that's spent, the multiplier is actually negative, and the economy takes a hit.
After reviewing the recent academic literature for the Mercatus Center's publication The Bridge, my colleague Jack Salmon and I found that most of "the empirical literature on fiscal multipliers conducted since then (2009) has found economic multipliers resulting from additional government spending ranging from a lower estimate of around 0.2 to an upper estimate of around 0.9." We go on to explain that in "(p)ulling the results from two dozen academic studies, we calculate an average multiplier at the low end of 0.31 and an average multiplier at the high end of 0.66."
Now, in fairness, there are narrow cases when government spending can stimulate the economy, but for that to happen, the environment in which the spending takes place is important. Work by economists Ethan Ilzetzki, Enrique Mendoza, and Carlos Vegh on the impact of government fiscal stimulus shows that it "depends on key country characteristics, including the level of development, the exchange rate regime, openness to trade, and public indebtedness." Many other economists have found the same. Unfortunately for the proponents of fiscal stimulus, the United States has the features of a country where stimulus by spending does have an impact and, in fact, can have a negative impact on growth.
Making matters worse is the fact that, even if you had a country with little debt and the right environment, implementing the spending correctly is a key to getting a multiplier that's larger than one. As former Treasury Secretary and former Director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers has explained, stimulus spending needs to be timely, targeted, and temporary. Unfortunately, evidence from the last recession shows that it rarely is.
There are always economists, journalists, and pundits willing to assume that this time will be different and government spending will deliver on the promises made on its behalf by pro-spending advocates. Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking. It is also a dangerous game to play. If spending doesn't deliver on the promised economic growth, what it will undoubtedly achieve is more debt. That, sadly, is a scenario where future growth goes up in a puff of smoke.
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