...against fictions and other tall tales

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Public investment and productivity growth: How to provide properly for the future

Just as I was thinking about the moral aspects of economic policy, here comes Paul Krugman with a fantastic commentary on how governments today are shortchanging future generations by not taking advantage of record low interest rates and not spending on productivity-enhancing public investments:
Fiscal policy is, indeed, a moral issue, and we should be ashamed of what we’re doing to the next generation’s economic prospects. But our sin involves investing too little, not borrowing too much — and the deficit scolds, for all their claims to have our children’s interests at heart, are actually the bad guys in this story. 
So true. This reminds me of something the late economist Robert Eisner wrote:
...balancing the budget at the expense of our public investment in the future is one way that we really borrow from our children - and never pay them back. (1996)
The reason for this is that the "deficit equals bad" crowd is completely oblivious to the fact that public investment adds to the stock of productive assets that help to enhance private sector productivity in the long run. And public spending on infrastructure, education, basic research and the development of new technology is essential to achieve the level of productivity necessary to improve our standard of living in the future.

And at a time when we are facing an aging population, increasing our future productivity growth should be a (if not the number one) priority.

A good explanation for this is provided by Francis Cavanaugh, former senior US Treasury Department economist and former CEO of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, who argues that
Significant productivity increases will be necessary as a diminished labor force is called on to support an expanded group of retirees. Without such increased production per worker, a shortage of goods will lead to price increases, and it is likely that the baby boomers will suffer a significant decline in the purchasing power of their retirement dollars. Inflation could soon decimate their retirement savings. That's the economic reality; if you're not working, you're dependent on the productivity of those who are. (1996)
In other words, the best protection against the potential losses that come with an aging population is to take measures today aimed at increasing the productivity growth of tomorrow. This should be the long term goal of policymakers right now.

So Prof. Krugman is right: contrary to what most politicians and commentators believe about how to improve our long-run prospect, slashing government spending is exactly the wrong thing to do at this time. 


Cavanaugh, F., The truth about the national debt, Boston: HBSP, 1996

Eisner, R., "The balanced budget crusade", The Public Interest, Winter 1996


  1. keynespendulum4 April 2013 at 20:05

    Timely insight Circuit, and always generous in reminding the electorate that KRUGMAN really tries to make a difference. As always, great.

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