Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Government and Job Creation: Where Both Candidates Got It Wrong (Although One More So), Government Does Create Jobs

The Candidates at the 2nd 2012 Presidential DebateNo binders involved in this jobs question, not even Mitt's "binders full of women" for filling state cabinet positions. In the Presidential debate last night neither of the Presidential candidates got it right on government and job creation. One, of course, was more wrong than the other ... but neither got it right.

Mr. Romney:
"Government does not create jobs. Government does not create jobs. (Chuckles.)"
 President Obama (in response to "What do you believe is the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate?"):
"... a lot of this campaign, maybe over the last four years, has been devoted to this notion that I think government creates jobs, that that somehow is the answer. That's not what I believe. 
I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world's ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk-takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that's how our economy is grown. That's how we built the world's greatest middle class."
Given his relatively conservative budget policy and restraint -- arguably ambivalence -- on fiscal stimulus, it seems plausible that the President really doesn't get that government can create jobs. Sure, he could have just been playing to conservatives, but his actual record suggests he really meant it. He may see more of a role for government in helping free enterprise than his opponent. But that just makes him less wrong. He apparently doesn't particularly believe in fiscal stimulus as a major tool to raise actual GDP towards potential GDP, which shouldn't be surprising to all of the Keynesian economists who called for a much larger, better stimulus and who read the accounts of how we came to get what stimulus we got, mostly without the President seriously pushing for any more. Sure, it might not have been politically feasible to get more, but that was partially because the President wasn't using the bully pulpit to push hard for more. Why? Apparently because he believes the widespread conservative myth that "government does not create jobs".

The Output Gap, actual GDP versus potential GDP
Despite what the candidates appear to believe, the fact of the matter is clear. Government most certainly can create jobs when actual GDP is significantly below potential GDP. Such as now.

As Dean Baker put it in summing up a different debate, "the Baker-Rowe-DeLong-Krugman Deficit Debate",
"First, we all seem to agree that in a situation where the economy is clearly operating well below its potential, governments can run deficits to boost employment and output. I believe we all agree that in principle the government can also use these deficits to increase future output through productive investment in either physical or human capital. This would make future generations better off on net as a result of deficits today, since the economy will be larger than it would be without the deficits."
When the economy is running at capacity, deficit spending generally won't stably boost us above potential. At that point, extra government spending risks crowding out private enterprise and in some cases certainly will do so. We're not at that point. Heck, we're nowhere near that point. The economy is gradually improving, but we've got a long way to go. While we're still plugging an output gap, deficit spending most certainly can and does create jobs whereas government cuts directly reduce overall employment.

Yet deficit spending during a downturn just illustrates one of many ways that government can create jobs. Progressive tax rates combined with social safety-net programs mitigate inequality and -- by getting money to those who have more want than means to fulfill it -- increase commerce, both effective and potential. Then there's research and development, for which various estimates show it's just a matter of exactly how many dollars are added to the economy for each dollar we've spent on NASA research that we've patented and licensed out to domestic firms. The only question is the exact multiplier; it's certain that NASA spending (not to mention DARPA and others) has created some number of private enterprise jobs beyond those that would have existed without the space program.

Private enterprise certainly excels at many things and government would be the wrong choice for a number of tasks, especially producing most kinds of manufactured products from MP3s to ice cream. So please don't misconstrue this as suggesting that more government is always better; there's a limit to what government reasonably can be expected to do or should do. President Obama is correct to believe that a major part of government's role consists of working towards creating a level playing field for private enterprise. But like Mr. Romney, he's wrong to fall for the conservative delusion on government and job creation. Government most certainly can create jobs. And right now, even more than usual, we very much need government to stop cutting back and do all that it can to create jobs.

But how do we get these politicians and the general public they serve to understand that?

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