No, Defense Spending Decline Not Behind Lackluster Economy
President Obama has found a new way to blame Republicans for his poor economic record. The government released preliminary GDP numbers for the 4th quarter of last year, and they were not good. The popular spin coming from the White House, his ideological echo chamber and the sycophantic media has been that government spending cuts, namely to defense, are to blame. In other words, it’s the fault of those wascally Wepublicans.
The claims being made are partly true, in that reducing government spending will, at least in the short run, reduce GDP. But that’s a tautology – GDP is defined to produce that result. It tells us nothing about the drivers of economic growth. Where the claims go wrong is in asserting that the same relationship exists between government spending and actual economic health. GDP is just a tool for measuring the economy, and it’s not even the best one. Dan Mitchell explains:
GDP numbers only measure how we spend or allocate our national income. It’s a very indirect way of measuring economic health. Sort of like assessing the status of your household finances by adding together how much you spend on everything from mortgage and groceries to your cable bill and your tab at the local pub.
Wouldn’t it make much more sense to directly measure income? Isn’t the amount of money going into our bank accounts the key variable?
The same principle is true – or should be true – for a country.
That’s why the better variable is gross domestic income (GDI). It measures things such as employee compensation, corporate profits, and small business income.
These numbers are much better gauges of national prosperity.
Consider this. We are being asked to believe that the US economy took a hit because the government spent less on defense. For that to be true, we must accept the flip side that defense spending grows the economy? But is that true? Certainly defense spending, up to a debatable level and excluding waste, has value to society in that it protects us from harm. But that’s not the same as making us wealthier. In fact, we accept that we are sacrificing a bit of wealth to pay for security. But let’s not pretend there’s no sacrifice at all – that we wouldn’t have an even higher standard of living if government wasn’t taking that money in the first place. Of course we would. Every tank is a neighborhood never built, or an office building that couldn’t be funded, or a business that wasn’t be expanded.
Put another way, if defense spending grew the economy, then all it would ever take to end a recession is to increase defense spending. That’s essentially the Keynesian stimulus argument, though for ideological reasons they typically prefer other forms of government spending than defense. But that’s not how the economy works.
The point is that how we measure things can deceive us if we do not differentiate the statistical tool itself from the thing it is measuring. The economy does not grow because government redistributes wealth, it grows when capital accumulated through savings and investment is put to use.