The President is asking Congress to enact a one-year $33 billion job-subsidy plan. An employer would receive a $5,000 tax credit in 2010 credit for increasing his labor force by one person and an additional subsidy for giving an employee a wage increase greater than the inflation rate. The total subsidy would be limited to $500,000 per employer, in the hope that the principal recipients would be small businesses. I do not know why the ceiling should be expected to have that effect. Even big businesses like $500,000 windfalls. If a big business happens to be increasing its hiring or its wages, why wouldn’t it claim the subsidy?
That point to one side, and disregarding also the abundant possibilities of gaming the program, stressed by Becker, the proposal is unlikely to be effective because it violates the economic principles that ought to guide stimulus programs.
The theory of stimulus is Keynes’s, is (in my opinion) sound, and is as follows. If, because a high rate of unemployment creates pessimism about the economic situation, people increase their savings at the same time that business is reducing its investing—and that is our situation today—the government can by financing projects through borrowing put the inert savings to work (inert because businesses aren’t borrowing people’s savings). The projects require workers, so unemployment falls, and with it pessimism and the cash hoarding, by consumers and businesses alike, that pessimism induces.
With Keynes’s theory understood, it becomes possible to list the principles of effective stimulus:
- The stimulus must be large in order to make a substantial dent in unemployment. The $787 billion stimulus enacted last February may have been too small; a $33 billion jobs subsidy is a drop in the bucket.
- The stimulus must be implemented before recovery from a depression or recession is well under way—otherwise the government’s borrowing to finance the stimulus will slow the recovery by pushing up interest rates. (That is, at some point in the recovery, business will resume investing and so will be competing with the government for capital.) If enactment of the job subsidy is delayed in Congress, or if procedures for preventing the gaming of the program are cumbersome, the subsidy expenditures may come too late to do any good.
- The stimulus must be targeted on industries, and areas of the country, in which unemployment is high. Like the $787 billion stimulus, the job-subsidy plan flunks this test as well.
- Most important, a stimulus is designed to stimulate demand, not supply. The economic problem for which a stimulus program is a solution is insufficient demand relative to the economy’s labor and other resources. Because of overindebtedness and continued weaknesses in the financial system, consumers and businesses are reluctant to spend. Businesses are reluctant to hire (that is one aspect of their reluctance to spend), so unemployment is high and wages are stagnant, which further depresses demand. The idea behind the stimulus is for government demand to take the place of the missing private demand. Government “buys” new roads, in lieu of consumers’ buying SUVs, and contractors meet the government’s demand by hiring unemployed construction workers. The job-subsidy plan is not demand-focused, and so is unlikely to contribute to the economic recovery. Suppose a firm in a depressed economy sells 100 earth-moving machines a year, and employs 200 workers. If the government tells the firm it can save $5,000 on its taxes by increasing its work force to 201, the firm’s total costs will increase (by the wages and benefits of the additional worker less $5,000), but its revenues will not increase because adding a worker does not increase the demand for its product.
There is an enormous amount of idle productive capacity in the