Friday, March 6, 2015

#014: Roads Create Jobs

John Oliver recently resurrected the statist “roads create jobs” meme during his most recent Last Week Tonight episode. Just when you thought that meme had died long ago alongside Obama’s failed economic stimulus, like every other statist talking point, and just like a zombie in a B-movie sequel, it comes crawling back to life from the grave.

As much as I could impress you all with a short essay elucidating why increased infrastructure spending won’t create any new jobs (or at least any permanent ones), let alone fix the economy, since I’m feeling like an especially lazy bastard this week, I think I’m just going to play school.

I’m the teacher, you all are my students, and I’m assigning your homework. Your assignment for tonight is to read two selections from literature concerning the correlation (or rather, lack thereof) between public works and job creation. There will be a quiz tomorrow, so be sure to take notes.

The first selection is from Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson wherein he explicates the economic concept of “the seen and the unseen”—that is, for every intended economic consequence of a government policy, there is an unseen, unintended, and often negative consequence. For example, while government spending on a construction project may provide temporary employment, the project has the unseen consequence of siphoning jobs and resources that could have been put to better use within the private sector.

The next selection is an analysis by Veronique de Rugy of Obama’s economic stimulus package, and how mismanagement by government bureaucracy and cronyism prevented what little funding went to actual public works projects (as opposed to the lion’s share that went to corporate boondoggles and pork barrel spending) from properly stimulating the economy.

The selections are provided below for you convenience—and remember, there will be a quiz tomorrow at the start of class, so be sure to study and take notes.


A certain amount of public spending is necessary to perform essential government functions. A certain amount of public works—of streets and roads and bridges and tunnels, of armories and navy yards, of buildings to house legislatures, police and fire departments—is necessary to supply essential public services. With such public works, necessary for their own sake, and defended on that ground alone, I am not here concerned. I am here concerned with public works considered as a means of “providing employment” or of adding wealth to the community that it would not otherwise have had.

A bridge is built. If it is built to meet an insistent public demand, if it solves a traffic problem or a transportation problem otherwise insoluble, if, in short, it is even more necessary than the things for which the taxpayers would have spent their money if it had not been taxed away from them, there can be no objection. But a bridge built primarily “to provide employment” is a different kind of bridge. When providing employment becomes the end, need becomes a subordinate consideration. “Projects” have to he invented. Instead of thinking only where bridges must be built, the government spenders begin to ask themselves where bridges can be built. Can they think of plausible reasons why an additional bridge should connect Easton and Weston? It soon becomes absolutely essential. Those who doubt the necessity are dismissed as obstructionists and reactionaries.

Two arguments are put forward for the bridge, one of which is mainly heard before it is built, the other of which is mainly heard after it has been completed. The first argument is that it will provide employment. It will provide, say, 500 jobs for a year. The implication is that these are jobs that would not otherwise have come into existence.

This is what is immediately seen. But if we have trained ourselves to look beyond immediate to secondary consequences, and beyond those who are directly benefited by a government project to others who are indirectly affected, a different picture presents itself. It is true that a particular group of bridge workers may receive more employment than otherwise. But the bridge has to be paid for out of taxes. For every dollar that is spent on the bridge a dollar will be taken away from taxpayers. If the bridge costs $1,000,000 the taxpayers will lose $1,000,000. They will have that much taken away from them which they would otherwise have spent on the things they needed most.

Therefore for every public job created by the bridge project a private job has been destroyed somewhere else. We can see the men employed on the bridge. We can watch them at work. The employment argument of the government spenders becomes vivid, and probably for most people convincing. But there are other things that we do not see, because, alas, they have never been permitted to come into existence. They are the jobs destroyed by the $1,000,000 taken from the taxpayers. All that has happened, at best, is that there has been a diversion of jobs because of the project. More bridge builders; fewer automobile workers, radio technicians, clothing workers, farmers.

But then we come to the second argument. The bridge exists. It is, let us suppose, a beautiful and not an ugly bridge. It has come into being through the magic of government spending. Where would it have been if the obstructionists and the reactionaries had had their way? There would have been no bridge. The country would have been just that much poorer.

Here again the government spenders have the better of the argument with all those who cannot see beyond the immediate range of their physical eyes. They can see the bridge. But if they have taught themselves to look for indirect as well as direct consequences they can once more see in the eye of imagination the possibilities that have never been allowed to come into existence. They can see the unbuilt homes, the unmade cars and radios, the unmade dresses and coats, perhaps the unsold and ungrown foodstuffs. To see these uncreated things requires a kind of imagination that not many people have. We can think of these non-existent objects once, perhaps, but we cannot keep them before our minds as we can the bridge that we pass every working day. What has happened is merely that one thing has been created instead of others.

- Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson, "Public Works Mean Taxes"


Myth 2: Additional infrastructure spending is an effective way to stimulate the economy and create jobs.

Fact 2: In theory, infrastructure spending injects more money into the economy than other types of government spending. In reality, however, politicians rarely include infrastructure spending in stimulus bills. Instead, they spend money on items like transfers and tax cuts. Only 3 percent of the last stimulus went to infrastructure.

Economists on both sides of the aisles argue that one reason why the stimulus failed is that it wasn’t designed properly. Stanford University’s John Taylor, for instance, has argued that although much money was spent, very little stimulus money was spent in the form of actual government purchase. In a paper with he  co-authored with John Cogan, Taylor finds that, out of the total $682 billion package, federal infrastructure spending was just $0.9 billion in 2009 and $1.5 billion through the first half of 2010—or less than four-tenths of 1 percent.

Taylor and Cogan also noted that most of the money generated by tax cuts was saved, not spent, and that the money that went to state governments was spent to reduce the states’ reliance on borrowing and on other “non-purchase” items, such as transfer payments, subsidies, and interest payments. In other words, the additional money that went to states and taxpayers didn’t change a thing. Taylor claims that a better-designed stimulus would have probably been more effective.

But experience tells us that the next stimulus won’t be any better. As the chart above shows, only 3 percent of the last stimulus went to infrastructure spending. Why? Because such programs are not political winners. For one thing, they take too long to produce results. Therefore they always take a back seat to politically-popular tax credits and transfers to the states.

Furthermore, while it may be true that additional infrastructure spending would have proved more effective than the current stimulus, that doesn’t change the fact that once the stimulus money goes away, the jobs and increased demand also disappear, and the government is left holding the debt.

- Veronique de Rugy, The Facts About Stimulus Spending