Stimulus II: High-Speed Rail Bugaloo

As the old saying goes, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” By that definition, President Barack Obama is frigging bugnuts.

This evening, President Obama called on Congress to pass the “American Jobs Act,” which is little more than another round of the same failed stimulus that was passed back in 2009. Since then, unemployment has hovered near double-digit levels, the economy has been limping, and our national debt has skyrocketed.

Instead of admitting what the majority of Americans can see with their own eyes, President Obama decided to double-down with more of the same. It was the same plans for “shovel-ready jobs” and high-speed rail, all to be paid with tax increases on the “rich,” of course.

Take the bizarre fascination with “high-speed rail.” It has been tried over and over again and it has never worked. It has always cost more than planned, required massive subsidies to work, and ended up being little more than a massive white elephant. emulating China’s failures is not the way to the future. Yet politicians keep pretending like the way to improve American infrastructure is to create a bunch of expensive high-speed rail lines. And even if China’s high-speed rail network makes sense for China, it doesn’t make sense in the slightest for the United States.

And then there’s the usual blather about “shovel ready jobs” and how if we just build a bunch of roads and bridges we can employ the millions of Americans who are just sitting idle. Now, I know that the President and most of the political elites know virtually nothing about manual labor, but if one is going to propose a jobs plan, it might be a good idea to learn about jobs.

President Obama needs to learn that not all “construction workers” are monolithic drones who can do anything that remotely resembles putting things together. You can’t take an unemployed sheet rocker or house framer and tell them to grab a shovel and build a bridge. Even in construction, the basic concept of division of labor still applies. There’s something vaguely condescending about the idea that all manual labor is basically interchangeable.

And finally, there’s the idea that taxing the “rich” will magically pay for all of this. Someone needs to inform the President (provided he would listen) about the concept of deadweight loss. It works like this:

Let’s say you take a million dollars from Warren Buffet. Had you not done that, Warren Buffet would have invested that million dollars in the hope of earning a nice return on his money. That million dollars would go to different companies, where it would pay for capital improvements, wages, new factories and offices, etc.

But that didn’t happen. The government took that million dollars. But that million dollars doesn’t get pumped directly into the economy. Instead part of it pays the salary of the government apparatchiks that process all the paperwork necessary to take the money, distribute it to the right agencies, and so on. Now, some will say that those salaries help the economy, and they do, but only to a point. Those bureaucrats don’t actually produce anything—they just push paper. That’s in contrast to someone who could take that money and invest it in something that would add value along the way. And it’s not just one layer of bureaucracy that the money has to get filtered through, it’s dozens or even hundreds. And each time, some of that million dollars gets lost.

And not only that, but the government does not spend money on what the best investment is. The government allocates money based on what the most politically well-connected want. When then happens is that money gets shoveled into politically-connected firms that quickly go best when the government turns the money spigots off. The failure of President Obama’s pet “green jobs” generator Solyndra is just one example of how government allocation of assets is not the way to build an economy.

So, by taking more money from Warren Buffet, the money has gone to government bureaucrats and the politically well-connected, but hasn’t produced any additional value. Had the government not taken the money from Warren Buffet, that money would have been invested prudently, and everyone would have been better off.

That’s why the idea of a Keynesian multiplier is a myth—government spending $1.00 does not magically produce $2.00 of value. But investing $1.00 in Apple in 1997 would produce way more than $2.00 today. The question is not whether the Keynesian multiplier exceeds 1, it’s whether it exceeds zero.

It may well be that building roads and bridges is a good idea—there are certainly valuable and needed infrastructure projects that constitute real public goods. (For example, the Stillwater Lift Bridge here in Minnesota is near collapse and serves thousands of motorists each day.) But why does it make sense to tax someone in California, send the money through Washington D.C. and then distribute it to local governments in Minnesota? That’s the problem of deadweight loss—government is not free, and while there are some projects that make sense to be done by government, those are few and far between.

President Obama’s speech tonight laid out yet another tired argument for “stimulus” spending that will fare no better than the already-tired arguments that he trotted out in 2009. Since then, the economy has suffered, leaving millions of Americans without the hope they were promised in 2008.

We need to change directions, and instead of empowering Washington D.C., we need to empower the American entrepreneur. We need to unleash America’s creative impulses and make it easier for Americans to start their own business and live their dreams. More of the same will not produce any different results. It is time for the President to end the madness and change direction.