« Even Dogs "Have a Sense of Fairness" | Main | "Atlas Shrugged is a Celebration of the Entrepreneur" »

Multiplier: Is it 1.5 as Team Obama Hopes; or Zero, as Barro Estimates?

(p. A17) Now we have the extreme demand-side view that the so-called "multiplier" effect of government spending on economic output is greater than one -- Team Obama is reportedly using a number around 1.5.

To think about what this means, first assume that the multiplier was 1.0. In this case, an increase by one unit in government purchases and, thereby, in the aggregate demand for goods would lead to an increase by one unit in real gross domestic product (GDP). Thus, the added public goods are essentially free to society. If the government buys another airplane or bridge, the economy's total output expands by enough to create the airplane or bridge without requiring a cut in anyone's consumption or investment.

The explanation for this magic is that idle resources -- unemployed labor and capital -- are put to work to produce the added goods and services.

. . .

What's the flaw? The theory (a simple Keynesian macroeconomic model) implicitly assumes that the government is better than the private market at marshaling idle resources to produce useful stuff. Unemployed labor and capital can be utilized at essentially zero social cost, but the private market is somehow unable to figure any of this out. In other words, there is something wrong with the price system.

John Maynard Keynes thought that the problem lay with wages and prices that were stuck at excessive levels. But this problem could be readily fixed by expansionary monetary policy, enough of which will mean that wages and prices do not have to fall. So, something deeper must be involved -- but economists have not come up with explanations, such as incomplete information, for multipliers above one.

. . .

There are reasons to believe that the war-based multiplier of 0.8 substantially overstates the multiplier that applies to peacetime government purchases. For one thing, people would expect the added wartime outlays to be partly temporary (so that consumer demand would not fall a lot). Second, the use of the military draft in wartime has a direct, coercive effect on total employment. Finally, the U.S. economy was already growing rapidly after 1933 (aside from the 1938 recession), and it is probably unfair to ascribe all of the rapid GDP growth from 1941 to 1945 to the added military outlays. In any event, when I attempted to estimate directly the multiplier associated with peacetime government purchases, I got a number insignificantly different from zero.

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT J. BARRO. "Government Spending Is No Free Lunch." Wall Street Journal (Thurs, JANUARY 22, 2009): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


Most Popular Posts

If you value this blog, and want to help support the expenses of hosting and maintaining it, please consider making a donation through PayPal:

The StatCounter number above reports the number of "page loads" since the counter was installed late on 2/26/08. Page loads are defined on the site as "The number of times your page has been visited."

View My Stats