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The Crisis Down Under

CANBERRA – The Great Recession of 2008 reached the farthest corners of the earth. Here in Australia, they refer to it as the GFC – the global financial crisis.

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world. He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon. So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked: Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries. But, ironically, attention has focused on the fact that some of the investment money was not spent as well as it might have been, and on the fiscal deficit that the downturn and the government’s response created.

Of course, we should strive to ensure that money is spent as productively as possible, but humans, and human institutions, are fallible, and there are costs to ensuring that money is well spent. To put it in economics jargon, efficiency requires equating the marginal cost associated with allocation (both in acquiring information about the relative benefits of different projects and in monitoring investments) with the marginal benefits. In a nutshell: it is wasteful to spend too much money preventing waste.