Does an increase in government spending create or destroy private sector jobs? Or more particularly, does additional spending on infrastructure—fixing existing roads and bridges, or building new ones—generate positive spillover effects for the rest of the economy? This question featured prominently in the 2009 debate over the size of the fiscal stimulus package. The Obama Administration, led by Christina Romer of the Council of Economic Advisors, wrote in January 2009, “we expect the proposed recovery plan to have significant effects on the aggregate number of jobs created, relative to the no-stimulus baseline.”
In response, conservative economists and politicians argued that rather than creating new jobs, government spending on infrastructure would crowd out private sector hiring. Over 200 conservative economists expressed stimulus skepticism, with a Cato Institute statement proclaiming “we the undersigned do not believe that more government spending is a way to improve economic performance.”The net result: The Obama administration ended up getting less to spend on infrastructure than it would have and should have.
What’s more, the debate over the size of the spillover effect—also known as “multipliers”—left lasting scars and hardened battle lines. Since then, proponents of higher infrastructure spending, including business stalwarts such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have faced intense skepticism about the economic benefits of improving our transportation infrastructure. For example, the Department of Transportation funding programs were reauthorized in 2012 only after three years of temporary stop-gap extensions, with funding levels essentially unchanged from the previous authorization in 2005.
In this paper, we try to go beyond the sterile back and forth to uncover the real story about the economic spillovers from infrastructure spending. In particular, we look at a series of new studies that have been done since the 2009 policy arguments, using a wide variety of data sources and analytical techniques.