Stimulus spending might not be as stimulating as we think

Few things annoy me more than rhetoric that implies government spending is funded by the generosity of ministers rather than by taxpayers. (Alistair Darling’s pre-Budget report speech included lines such as, “Mr Speaker, we chose not to let people sink when they lost their jobs but to intervene to help them stay afloat.” No, Mr Darling, you didn’t – the taxpayer did.)

Such quibbles aside, it seems only sensible that when unemployment rises and companies stumble, the taxpayer should take up the slack. And yet the economic case for government stimulus is far from clear cut. Stimulus spending can erode private spending. My wife, for example, is a portrait photographer. Recently she secured a contract from a local council that kept her busy for weeks. While she was working on it she kept her head down, actively avoiding work in the private sector. A company looking for a photographer would have had to go elsewhere, perhaps paying more for an inferior snapper, perhaps giving up on the whole business.

The pro-stimulus view is that the government hires otherwise-unemployed workers, who spend money, which is used to hire other otherwise-unemployed workers, who go on to spend more money, and so on. No wonder such government spending is said to have a “multiplier”. But the example of my wife suggests that the multiplier could also be zero. Rather than reducing unemployment, the government may be shifting workers from the private to the public sector.

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