Cutting public investments to protect “the children” — or, when the cure is much worse than the malady

Policymakers in D.C. have a long history of focusing on the wrong problem (how many screamed about the housing bubble and buildup of private debt in the mid-2000s, for example?). This history continues today – you can’t follow economic debates taking place inside the Beltway for long without inevitably hearing somebody thunder about the “burdens we’re placing on our children and grandchildren” with current budget deficits. This formulation has become so common that almost nobody bothers questioning it anymore. But in fact, policies aimed at cutting today’s budget deficits are actually more threatening to our kids’ economic futures than these deficits themselves.

It may help to review the economic case for when one should worry about budget deficits. If the government begins running large deficits when the economy is healthy, this means that it must increase the money that it’s borrowing, essentially walking into the market for loans and sharply bidding up their demand. This increase in demand will cause interest rates (the “price” of borrowing) to rise, and these new higher prices will convince private companies to forego some investment projects that they otherwise would have undertaken. This results in a smaller capital stock and hence less-productive economy bequeathed to the next generation. Voila, generational theft!1

The responses to why these arguments do not apply to the current situation have been made many times before. The price of borrowing has not risen, and that’s not an unsustainable fluke. Instead, it’s precisely because the economy is depressed. So, no private capital formation is being crowded-out (and in fact, lots is probably being crowded-in as government deficits support spending and demand, and this spending and demand is actually the biggest near-term driver of private investment) – in fact, private-sector capital formation, after a horrendous fall during the teeth of the Great Recession, is one of the few real sources of strength in the latest recovery.

But is it really so bad that policymakers want to attack a non-existent problem (i.e., the federal budget deficit crowding-out private investment)?


Most importantly, near-term reductions in deficits will place a substantial drag on an already-weak recovery. Given that the economy grew at less than 2 percent in 2011, this is not the time to be sharply applying the brakes.

Further, if frantic efforts to cut spending result in reductions in public investments (and they will), then something truly perverse will happen: productive investments will be sacrificed in the name of … preserving productive investments.

Take a look at estimates of the nation’s wealth (pie chart below, from the Office of Management and Budget – and note as well that near-identical estimates (see p. 195) were made by the OMB during the Bush administration):

Half of the nation’s overall capital stock consists of human capital, or education. This is largely financed publicly. And, over a third of the equipment and structures capital stock is owned publicly. In short, when figuring out the actual wealth that we’re passing on to the next generation, one must take public investments into account.

Yet, we’ve already allowed this public investment to lag in recent decades. Cutting it further today and tomorrow actually would put a burden on our children and grandchildren (unlike, say, accommodating larger budget deficits). A new EPI paper released yesterday surveys estimates of just how much we could gain by engaging in a program of expanded public investment over the next decade. It is serious money for the economy, and even the federal government itself would largely recoup the costs of this investment through tax revenues gained by the extra growth and job-generation this public investment could boost if it was undertaken while the economy was still weak. And I’ve probably even underestimated this fiscal offset in the paper.

Despite anguished cries about the fate of “our children,” it seems clear that the rush to slash spending will continue and one obvious casualty is going to be the public investments that are actually valuable to the next generation. Sadly, public investment has become a bit of a political orphan in recent decades, largely because of a mid-1990s productivity surge that happened without an increase in public investment. What this has meant is that with no constituency advertising its benefits, too many people and policymakers are genuinely unaware of the stakes in cutting it. But these stakes are large – unless coming decades see something analogous to another IT boom, we shouldn’t expect post-1995 rates of productivity growth to be sustained in the face of further public investment cutbacks.

Lastly, the target list for aiming lots of public investment funds at in coming decades is long: basic infrastructure, early-childhood education, health care, and research and development. These are pretty common areas where it’s agreed that lots of public investment money could be productively channeled. But there is also the obvious case of investments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the worst effects of climate change. There is overwhelming evidence that these are investments that should be done, and because making them would primarily benefit those children and grandchildren that policymakers in D.C. are so solicitous of, it seems like this should be a slam-dunk.

1. This is, strictly speaking, the “closed-economy” case for how deficits can harm the economy. The “open-economy” case has no more empirical support for it operating today, so we’ll skip it for now.