David R. Henderson  

Priceless Macro, Part Two

EconLog Book Club on For a ... What Counts as Evidence that t...

On Saturday, January 12, the Obama Presidency-Elect (I can't think of a less clunky term) sent out, "The Job Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan," by Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein. It would qualify for Arnold Harberger's term "priceless."

The big thing missing is any cost-benefit analysis, even a crude one, of the "Reinvestment" Plan. We have a fairly good idea of the short-run cost of the new spending--it's the amount that the government spends times (one plus the incremental deadweight loss per dollar spent). This is probably an understatement of the cost because many of the expenditures, although touted as temporary, may well be permanent.

What is the benefit to weigh against these costs? Romer and Bernstein estimate the increase in jobs and their estimates could be right, or not. But what is the value of these jobs? They don't say. There are two ways the jobs could create benefits. The first is by producing things that people value. Unfortunately, with the things produced being politically chosen, the presumption is that they are worth well below a dollar per dollar of spending. I think a generous estimate would be 50 cents of value per dollar of expenditure. How much value, really, would have been created by the famous "Bridge to Nowhere" that Governor Palin first touted and then disowned? The second way the jobs could create value is by giving producer surplus (rents) to the workers. The producer surplus here is the difference between their pay and their supply price, the minimum price for which they would be willing to do the jobs. Their supply price is at least equal to their value of leisure and, for workers who would otherwise be working elsewhere, is higher. I bet a generous estimate here is 30 cents of producer surplus per dollar of pay. So that's 80 cents total of value per dollar of expenditure. Moreover, as noted above, the cost of a dollar of expenditure is higher than one dollar because of deadweight loss from taxes (now or in the future.)

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Gary Rogers writes:

Don't forget the risks involved here. An extra trillion dollars of immediate borrowing could easily be the trigger that effectively kills our credit rating. Without the perception that the United States Government is an absolutely secure borrower, our overall cost of debt could skyrocket.

William writes:

But what is the value of these jobs? They don't say.

Isn't the value obvious? If you are politician, the lower the unemployment rate, the more likely you are to get re-elected.

To claim that economists, as economists, have any reason to care about "jobs" defies understanding.

Harkins writes:

The big thing missing is not cost-benefit analysis; it's analysis of any kind. The report is 14 pages of hoped-for results.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

You'd think it would be easy to point to reduction in human capital due to long-term unemployment - for a related example, see:


"we find that unemployment experienced as long ago as ten years continues to affect earnings adversely despite the catch-up response."

Of course, the biggest challenge is how government can not just "create jobs" but move people from unemployment into employment without unemploying currently employed people.

Personally, I'm not sure that can be done well with any fiscal tool, but I suspect the efficiency of reducing payroll taxes on enhancing employment of the unemployed is better than random spending to create jobs.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

By the way, I'd accept this:

"Christina and Jared will lose their jobs if GDP does not rise by 3.7% and jobs increase by 3,675,000 by 2010Q4..."

PJens writes:

Over at http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/01/obamas-indifference-on-tax-cuts.html#comments

there is an examination of the impact on GDP of the proposed stimulus versus tax cuts. I am not sure if that qualifies as a cost benefit analysis, even a crude one, but it is the only thing I have seen that comes close.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top