The Biggest Economic Mistake in Rubio's State of the Union Response

Government borrowing doesn't always crowd out private borrowing


Four years after the end of the presidency that must not be named, Republicans are no closer to figuring out what went wrong or what comes next.

Sure, the GOP has decided Bush spent too much, but there's been little other reckoning (outside of wonks like David Frum, Reihan Salam, and Ross Douthat). After all, it's hard to see what fiscal profligacy had to do with stagnant median incomes, rising healthcare and college costs, and a fragile financial system -- and harder still to see what remedies the Republicans have to offer. When it comes to policy, the GOP is stuck in 1980: lower taxes, less regulation, and more drilling for oil are always and everywhere the answer, no matter the question. (No, really).

Even Obama's reelection hasn't been enough to wake the Republicans from their Reagan von Winkle slumber. The GOP has chosen re-branding over rethinking. In other words, they think they have a messenger, not a message, problem -- and that's where Marco Rubio comes in. As Jonathan Chait of New York explains, Rubio offers the party an appealing, young salesman for its same, old policies, immigration aside. It was no accident his response to the State of the Union was so devoid of anything resembling new thinking. It was the point. Indeed, Rubio just rounded up the usual talking points, saying, among other things, that the government was a major cause of the housing bubble (it wasn't), and that Washington needs a balanced budget amendment (it very much does not). These are certainly cringe-worthy mistakes, but Rubio's biggest one is even more fundamental. He doesn't think the government can create jobs, except when it does.

Here's what he had to say about government deficits:

Every dollar our government borrows is money that isn't being invested to create jobs. And the uncertainty created by the debt is one reason why many businesses aren't hiring.

Rubio has fallen victim to one of the classic economic blunders. It's called Say's Law, and it's not, in fact, a law. It's more like a guideline. The idea is that supply creates its own demand, which is true enough during booms, but not so during busts. The underlying logic here -- producing goods gives you the income to buy other goods -- makes sense, but only as long as you don't include money. Then everything falls apart. We'll return to why money is the root of all depressions in a second, but first, let's think about what it would mean if Say's Law were true. It would mean a world where demand can never lag supply; where unemployment is either voluntary or transient (when people switch jobs); and where government spending can never help the economy. After all, public borrowing has to come from somewhere, and a dollar the government borrows is a dollar the private sector doesn't. In other words, government borrowing "crowds out" private borrowing, pushing up interest rates as it competes for funds.

But this is terribly wrong. In the real world, people are out of work because they can't find work, not because they don't want it; the Great Recession has not been a Great Vacation. Supply doesn't always create its own demand, because demand for money might increase. In other words, people might hoard money. Now, "hoard" probably brings to mind people frantically stuffing money into mattresses, but it's a bit different than that today. It means households don't want to spend, and businesses don't want to invest, and banks don't want to lend. There's an excess of desired savings over desired investment -- or, as it's more commonly called, a recession. The Fed can make hoarding less appealing by cutting interest rates to inject money into the economy, but it can't do so now, at least not easily. Interest rates are already at zero, and unconventional money-printing hasn't been quite as effective. In short, the Fed hasn't been able to get us to stop hoarding right now.

That leaves two options: depression or deficits. In other words, either nobody borrows the unborrowed money, or the government does. If nobody does, the economy will contract by as much as isn't borrowed; if the government does, the economy will (at least) stabilize. As Matthew Yglesias of Slate points out, it's easy enough to tell the government is borrowing money that otherwise wouldn't be today, since interest rates have fallen despite big deficits. There has been no crowding out.

But it turns out we are actually all Keynesians now, even Marco Rubio. At least when it comes to military spending. (Though he's hardly alone with this cognitive dissonance). Here's what he told last September about the upcoming sequester cuts set to hit the Pentagon:

Thousands of jobs in defense-related enterprises have been lost already, with many more projected to go if the sequester crisis is not averted. These defense cuts hurt innovation, medical research and thousands of small businesses who subcontract for defense-related work.

Rubio is actually a pretty ambitious Keynesian! Not only does he think the government can create jobs, but he also thinks those jobs create other jobs -- that is, there's a multiplier on government spending.

Just don't tell Rubio he agrees with Paul Krugman.