J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and the author of Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century (Basic Books, 2022). He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.
BERKELEY – Former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had a good line at the International Monetary Fund meetings this year: governments, he said, are trying to treat a broken ankle when the patient is facing organ failure. Summers was criticizing Europe’s focus on the second-order issue of Greece while far graver imbalances – between the EU’s north and south, and between reckless banks’ creditors and governments that failed to regulate properly – worsen with each passing day.
But, on the other side of the Atlantic, Americans have no reason to feel smug. Summers could have used the same metaphor to criticize the United States, where the continued focus on the long-run funding dilemmas of social insurance is sucking all of the oxygen out of efforts to deal with America’s macroeconomic and unemployment crisis.
The US government can currently borrow for 30 years at a real (inflation-adjusted) interest rate of 1% per year. Suppose that the US government were to borrow an extra $500 billion over the next two years and spend it on infrastructure – even unproductively, on projects for which the social rate of return is a measly 25% per year. Suppose that – as seems to be the case – the simple Keynesian government-expenditure multiplier on this spending is only two.
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