Morning Bell: Redistribution Does Not Create Growth

Conn Carroll /

On Aug. 1, then-candidate Barack Obama announced a $50 billion “emergency” economic stimulus plan. Now that he’s been elected, President-elect Obama’s advisers are pushing for a $500 billion spending plan. That number is not a mistake. In just three months the size of Obama’s emergency spending plan has risen tenfold. Obama has not even been sworn in yet, but the incoming administration is already proposing new deficit spending that is almost 4% of U.S. gross domestic product. Is there even any evidence that all this proposed government spending can spur economic growth? Not at all.

Spending-stimulus advocates believe the government can create economic growth by “injecting” new money into the economy, increasing demand and, therefore, production. This raises the obvious question: Where does the gov­ernment acquire the money it pumps into the econ­omy? Congress does not have a vault of money waiting to be distributed. The Federal Reserve could print a bunch of new money, but that would send inflation soaring and make us no better than a banana republic. Therefore, every dollar Congress “injects” into the economy must first be taxed or borrowed out of the economy. No new spending power is created. It is merely redistrib­uted from one group of people to another.

Spending advocates typically respond that redistributing money from “savers” to “spend­ers” will lead to additional spending. That assumes savers store their savings in their mattresses or elsewhere outside the economy. In reality, nearly all Americans either invest their savings by purchasing financial assets such as stocks and bonds (which finances business investment), or by purchasing non-financial assets such as real estate, or they deposit it in banks (which quickly lend it to others to spend). The money is used regardless of whether people spend or save. The only way government redistribution can lead to more growth is if the government is better at efficiently allocating resources than the market otherwise would have been. And here governments have a historically terrible track record:

Massive spending hikes in the 1930s, 1960s and 1970s all failed to increase economic growth rates. Yet in the 1980s and 1990s — when the federal government shrank by one-fifth as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) — the U.S. economy enjoyed its great­est expansion to date. Heritage senior policy analyst Brian Riedl concludes:

Rather than redistributing money, lawmakers should focus on improving long-term productivity. This means reducing marginal tax rates to encourage working, saving, and investing. It also means promoting free trade, cutting unnecessary red tape, and streamlining wasteful spending that all weaken the private sector’s ability to generate income and create wealth. Finally, it means strengthening edu­cation — not just throwing money at it. Addressing long-term growth and productivity is more chal­lenging than waving the magic wand of short-term “stimulus” spending—but a more productive economy will be better prepared to handle future economic downturns.

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