Budget deficits are emerging as one of Washington’s chief economic obsessions, with both liberal and conservative economic camps opining about the deficit’s effect on the economy. Robert Samuelson’s recent column in the Washington Post describes how the major economic doctrines—particularly Keynesian and monetarists (or supply-siders)—interpret the fiscal impact of budget deficits.
Keynesians believe budget deficits (either from increased spending or reduced taxes) can stimulate the economy, leading to more demand and therefore more jobs. As Paul Krugman’s recent arguments have demonstrated, they believe that when unemployment rates are high job creation should not be sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction. In contrast, many neoclassical economists, especially conservative supply-siders, argue that big government deficits reduce national savings and increase interest rates while also contributing to financial uncertainty and reducing private sector investments.
While Samuelson rightly points out the differing perspectives of the Keynesian and supply-siders, he misses what they have in common. Neither of them considers the role of innovation in their growth models or distinguishes between spending and investment. And with this omission they fail to see what particular types of deficit spending can be harmful to the economy and conversely what kinds can be beneficial.
Innovation economists argue that the long-term benefits of investments, particularly in innovation, outweigh the costs of temporary budget deficits. For example, as the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation recently demonstrated, expanding the R&D tax credit, while costing the government money in the short run, would actually lead to more revenue for the Treasury in the medium term. Innovation economists support direct investments, such as government research, and indirect public investments, such as an expansion of the R&D tax credit. Robust investment in innovation and technology are essential to long-term growth. This is because innovation increases productivity, and productivity gains have accounted for the lion’s share of economic prosperity over the last several decades.
Once economists recognize innovation as the most important part of economic policy, the impact of budget deficits becomes clearer. For example, neoclassical economists worry that deficit spending will increase interest rates and reduce the amount of capital available for private sector investment. Innovation economists believe that investments in technology and knowledge spur economic growth and will generate more capital. The problem is that the market doesn’t always allocate as much capital to these endeavors as it should. Indeed, the extremely low interest rates in the early 2000s did little to boost these kinds of investments. Instead, people used low interest rates to increase capitalized spending, specifically in housing, which created the housing bubble. Instead of emphasizing access to capital, innovation economics argues that if investment in technology (including new capital equipment used by business) is the goal, then policy makers would do better to focus on policies that incentivize such investments, such as allowing first-year capital expensing—even if doing so temporarily increases the budget deficit.
Samuelson frets that the differing opinions on how to handle the budget deficit indicate that “[w]e may be reaching the limits of economics.” Indeed, if in the knowledge-based economy we are limited by theories that still define the production process as only land, labor or capital, as Adam Smith did, these legacy economic doctrines will likely offer little advice on the budget. On the other hand, the new-growth theory of innovation economics that puts knowledge and innovation at the center of the contemporary production process is more able to intellectually navigate the modern, global economy and dictate appropriate policy decisions.
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