The economy has just about come to a standstill - not so much because credit markets are clogged as because there's not enough demand in the economy to keep it going. Consumer spending has fallen off a cliff. Investment is drying up. And exports are dropping because the recession has now spread around the world.
So are we about to return to Keynesianism? Hopefully. Government is the spender of last resort, which means the new Obama administration should probably be considering a stimulus package in the range of $600 billion, roughly 4 percent of national product -- focused on building and repairing the nation's crumbling infrastructure, providing help to states to maintain services, and investing in new green technologies in order to wean the nation off oil.
But between now and late January, when the stimulus package will be voted on, we're likely to be treated to a great debate over the wisdom of Keynesianism. Fiscal hawks will claim government is already spending way too much. Even without the stimulus package, next year's budget deficit is likely to be in the range of $1.5 trillion, considering the shrinking economy and what's being spent bailing out Wall Street. The hawks also worry that post-war baby boomers are only a few years away from retirement, meaning that the costs of Social Security and Medicare will balloon.
What the hawks don't get is what John Maynard Keynes understood: when the economy has as much underutilized capacity as we have now, and are likely to have more of in 2009 and 2010 (in all likelihood, over 8 percent of our workforce unemployed, 13 percent underemployed, millions of houses empty, factories idled, and office space unused), government spending that pushes the economy to fuller capacity will of itself shrink future deficits.
Conservative supply-siders, meanwhile, will call for income-tax cuts rather than government spending, claiming that people with more money in their pockets will get the economy moving again more readily than can government. They're wrong, too. Income-tax cuts go mainly to upper-income people, and they tend to save rather than spend.
Even if a rebate could be fashioned for the middle class, it wouldn't do much good because, as we saw from the last set of rebate checks, people tend to use extra cash to pay off debts rather than buy goods and services. Besides, individual purchases wouldn't generate nearly as many American jobs as government spending on infrastructure, social services, and green technologies, because so much of we as individuals buy comes from abroad.
So the government has to spend big time. The real challenge will be for government to spend it wisely -- avoiding special-interest pleadings and pork projects such as bridges to nowhere. We'll need a true capital budget that lays out the nation's priorities rather than the priorities of powerful Washington lobbies. How exactly to achieve this? That's the debate we should be having between now and January 20 or 21st.