Great Minds Think Alike

Serge Coulombe, an economics professor at the University of Ottawa, has a great op-ed in today’s Financial Post:

The Fraser report looks at the change in the contribution of government expenditures to the GDP growth between the second and the third quarters, and the third and the fourth quarters, of 2009. This approach is problematic since it focuses on the change in the growth rate. . . .

Using the Fraser Institute’s odd methodology, government expenditures would have contributed to the recovery if and only if they accelerated between the second and the fourth quarters of 2009. A steady increase in government expenditures during the period would have not been enough to contribute to the recovery. . . .

To the contrary, a plain analysis of the same data reveals that the role of government stimulation has been critical and substantial. Without the direct effect of government intervention, the recession would have extended to the third quarter of 2009 and made the recovery in the fourth quarter more modest.

That critique of the Fraser Institute will be familiar to readers of this blog or The Hill Times.

Last week, I chastised the Post for shutting out criticism of the Fraser Institute’s report. I must now give it credit for printing Dr. Coulombe’s piece.

However, today’s Financial Post also includes yet another op-ed from the Fraser Institute rebutting Dr. Coulombe. Over the past two weeks, the Post has published just one item critical of the report compared to three op-eds by the report’s authors, three columns endorsing it and a front-page story promoting it.

The Fraser Institute defends its methodology as follows: “By definition, stimulus spending means speeding up the increases in government spending.” Well, by that definition, there was essentially no stimulus spending between the second and fourth quarters of 2009. If so, the conclusion is not that stimulus failed but that it never happened.

To some extent, governments have indeed run deficits simply to continue increasing public spending at the usual pace. But then we are back to a point made by Iglika and Dr. Coulombe: had governments not done so, the recession would have been that much worse.

The thrust of the Fraser Institute’s last two op-eds has been to cite academic economists who believe that stimulus does not work. True, the dominant view in neoclassical economics before the financial crisis was that fiscal stimulus cannot work.

However, this point does not prove that stimulus did not work. Instead, it underscores how far off base the conventional wisdom was.

One comment

  • This interview with Baro pretty well sums up the stimulus does not work argument,
    The Globe piece this morning sums up the Harper position. The cuts to the GST provided the stimulus, along with temporary spending.
    I now think we should be measuring most public policy by the impact on inequality, not just GDP growth. The wipe-out of the automatic stabilizers by the 1995 budget left more people vulnerable to the downturn. Looking at growth without looking at income distribution misses a big point: the more unequal the society the worse its social health. Where the stimulus ends up matters a lot. Minsky wanted stimulus to go to those at the bottom of the income scale, and he was surely right. I prefer automatic to discretionary I guess.

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