I just returned from a visit to the Bank of Canada and had the opportunity to speak to a few high-level officials at the Bank along with several leading academics concerning a variety of issues relating to the current financial crisis.
In some of my conversations, I brought up the subject of fiscal spending; in particular, the desirability of many of the so-called "fiscal stimulus" packages that are currently being proposed. I am not sure why I was surprised, but almost everyone I spoke to thought that there was clear merit in the idea of "fiscal stimulus;" especially in the form of infrastructure investment.
Once their view was made known, I asked the question "why?" What evidence can be brought to bear in support of their view? What was it that convinced them of their belief on this matter?
Judging by the delay in the responses I received, I got the impression that many were not used to being asked such a question. They had to pause, after the initial shock I suppose, of having to collect their thoughts on the matter. The responses I received were not entirely convincing.
The responses could be divided into one of three categories:
 There is econometric evidence which suggests that the government spending multiplier is greater than one;
 The big jump in U.S. fiscal spending during WW2 and corresponding increase in GDP constitutes clear evidence of the efficacy of fiscal stimulus; and
 These are unusual times; the market is screwed up and *something* of this sort must be tried.
Personally, I am skeptical of having one's belief on the matter so firmly rooted on the basis of . But perhaps one of you might persuade me otherwise.
The second world war is one data point that most people like to point to for confirming evidence. But is it wise to base one's beliefs on this one data point? The war experience was rather unusual. True, there was a massive buildup in military hardware (and hence, measured GDP), much of which was destined for destruction. But there was also a sharp drop in personal consumption expenditures (e.g., foodstuffs and material were rationed to the population). And while employment surged, much of this was by taking women out of the home sector and into the production of war materials. I can see why a population might want to make such sacrifices during a period of war; but would they be willing to do so today? And if so, would such a diversion of resources make society better off in any meaningful sense? I am not sure.
I found  the least convincing. My own view is that if we do not have convincing evidence that a particular policy will "work," then how do we know that doing "something" might not leave things even worse off than doing "nothing" at all? Since doing "something" involves the mass appropriation of resources from private citizens, would it not be better to err on the side of doing "nothing?" (Evidently not).
Of course, there may be better answers to the questions I asked, but these were the answers I received. My surprise, I suppose, was not in the answers themselves; but rather, how firmly people seemed to believe in the value of fiscal stimulus on the basis of their reported answers. Is this some sort of new religion? Perhaps they might have provided more convincing answers if they had a little more time to think about it, but I am not sure.
My own view is that people believe that fiscal stimulus works because there is no question that it does work at the microeconomic level. That is, when the government commissions a large number of workers to build something, one can actually see it being built, and one can actually see workers being employed in the act of construction.
But of course, what appears to work at the microeconomic level does not necessarily mean that it "works" at the macroeconomic level. It is harder to "see" the general equilibrium effects. It is harder to estimate net employment creation (rather than gross). What would these workers have been doing absent the government project? Would they have sat at home "idle;" or would they have been employed in some other sector (or perhaps engaged in retraining?). And how does the tax bill levied on the population at large affect their desired spending? If government spending is so successful in one area, then why not have the government coordinate all production activities in the economy? What is the optimal level of government spending? How does one calculate it? These are much harder questions to answer; and so, I suppose it is easier if they are not asked.
I leave you with a couple of articles on Japan's fiscal experience:
Bloated Bureaucracy Exposed (Japan Times)
Japan's Big-Works Stimulus is a Lesson (NY Times)
For the time-being, I remain agnostic on the subject (although, I confess that the evidence from Japan leans me more in one direction than the other). If someone can provide me with clear evidence one way or the other, I'd really appreciate it!
Brief Bio: Born in Vancouver, British Columbia. Flowering career in construction sector (drywall taper) aborted by severe recession (1982). Received Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Western Ontario (1994). Taught as a university professor for over 20 years. I now work in the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and I write this blog mainly in my spare time (it is not a part of my formal duties). I welcome comments and (constructive) criticisms. Feel free to email me if you would like to discuss issues in greater detail.
Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. Andre Gide