As Kishore Jayabalan noted yesterday, the fallacy of “broken windows” is, unfortunately, ubiquitous in discussions of public finance and macroeconomics. Though we are told that government spending and public works have a stimulating effect on economic activity, rarely are the costs of such projects discussed.
Such is the case with several stimulus projects in my own hometown of Atlanta, GA. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports on a list that Sen. John McCain and Sen. Tim Coburn drew up, criticizing wasteful stimulus projects throughout the country:
Their list includes Georgia Tech professors who received federal stimulus funds to understand how jazz, avant-garde art and Indian classical musicians improvise. The report cites an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article that describes the $762,372 study, which involves using brain imaging to learn how musicians do their work.
[….] The senators also highlighted a $677,462 research project at Georgia State University to study “why monkeys respond negatively to inequity and unfairness.” Asked about the project, the university sent the AJC a news release from last year that said the research “will hopefully answer questions about the evolution of responses to reward inequality — including those responses in humans.”
Georgia Tech has fired back:
Georgia Tech issued a statement in response, saying such research is “necessary for the long-term economic success of our state and our nation.”
But how can one verify such claims? As Kishore has pointed out, the mere fact that money is being spent is not enough to claim that the economy benefits from such expenditure. The hidden costs of stimulus money are the jobs and services that would have otherwise been funded by the private sector.
In order to actually determine whether an investment is truly beneficial to the economy, one must be able to subject it to the cost-accounting of profit and loss. A product or service that makes losses has consumed resources that could have otherwise been put to more productive uses in the economy. But since government expenditures are funded not through any kind of voluntary market exchange, but through taxation, this kind of mechanism cannot be used to evaluate them.
So we can be pretty sure that stimulus projects, in fact, are not as conducive to economic growth as we have been led to believe, since such projects would probably not withstand the profit-and-loss test of the market.
But this is not to say that funding any of this kind of scientific research is not worthwhile. Activities such as philanthropy and charitable giving do not produce any kind of profitable return, but are nevertheless recognized as noble and praiseworthy. There may be good reasons for funding these projects, but economic growth is not one of them.