What, if anything, can jumpstart the American economy? Most recessions are followed by big rebounds in growth, but the Great Recession hasn't led to a Great Comeback. Three years after the recession ended, unemployment is still sitting above 8 percent. But there is a way out.
It's not more monetary stimulus. The Fed has already taken extraordinary measures to juice the economy. Short-term interest rates near zero and "credit easing" have sent plenty of money sloshing through the markets. The problem now isn't the supply of financing for consumption and investment -- it's demand. As William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said in a recent speech, the rate of return in the private sector may simply be too low to encourage companies to spend and hire.
The rate of return is likely to be much higher in the public sector, however. Academic research has repeatedly shown that investments in infrastructure, higher education, and basic scientific research pay back handsomely in long-term economic activity -- from 25 to 67 cents in today's money for every dollar spent. And like many investments, they pay off most when they've been neglected for a long time. These investments are the supply-side foundation for future growth; they increase the economy's productivity and its potential output of goods and services. They also have demand-side benefits in the short term, by putting people to work.
But how can the United States spend more money when its deficits are already so enormous? Actually, borrowing more to invest in these areas will not necessarily lead to higher interest rates or greater fears about the nation's debt. Because this kind of spending helps the economy to grow year after year, it helps to ensure that the Treasury's creditors will get their money back.
Moreover, it's a great time to borrow and spend. The 30-year Treasury bond is currently yielding about 2.5 percent, and the 10-year note is at historic lows of around 1.5 percent. If 10 cents of the 50-cent return on these investments comes back to the Treasury as tax revenue, these investments will practically pay for themselves. The logic is simple: It's just like taking out a big mortgage while investing in a rising stock market -- borrow at low rates, invest at high rates.
Here are three ways that the U.S. federal government could invest in the economy's future:
1. A New New Deal
Infrastructure for transportation, energy distribution, and other critical functions of the U.S. economy has been neglected for decades. The World Economic Forum's most recent Global Competitiveness Report ranked the nation 24th in infrastructure, behind such economic titans as ... Barbados, Oman, and Portugal. The World Bank's Logistics Performance Index puts the United States in 7th place, behind major competitors Japan, Singapore, and Germany. To understand why, look no further than those tire-bursting potholes on the interstate, two-hour delays at overscheduled airports, 40-mph train journeys, and data-threatening summer brownouts.
Regaining leadership in this area could invigorate commerce both internally and with the rest of the world. In the long term, better infrastructure lowers the cost of doing business and increases the capacity for industries to grow. And as in the 1930s, new infrastructure projects can still employ thousands of people.
2. A New G.I. Bill
Over the past decade, millions of Americans have lost jobs as a result of globalization. Because of competition from abroad, their skills no longer command a living wage. They still can and want to work but are ill prepared for the labor market. In other words, they are a huge untapped and underdeveloped resource.
The United States faced this situation once before, in 1945. In the 12 years of the original G.I. Bill, about half of the nation's 16 million veterans used it for college or training, leading to substantial gains in educational attainment. Today, the United States has a much bigger higher education system that is ready to receive globalization's veterans, who are in just as much need of reintegration into the labor force. Call it the Globalization and Integration Bill.
3. A New Sputnik Moment
The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 led the federal government to double funding for science as a share of the economy within only six years. There may be no satellite to prove American inferiority in science today, but there is a particle accelerator: the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, which might have been surpassed by the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas had Congress not canceled it in 1993.
Putting such iconic projects aside, the American lag in science is visible in other important ways. Korea's National Research Foundation spends $55 per person, compared with $22 for the U.S. National Science Foundation, even after recent budget increases. The U.S. economy produces fewer patents per dollar of GDP than Korea, Japan, and China. The unfortunate fact that millions of Americans -- and even some top politicians -- reject scientific evidence for evolution and global warming doesn't help, either. Right now, federal funding for science as a share of the economy is back where it was in the 1950s. Another big boost would be a powerful signal of the economy's potential for future growth.
President Obama named all three of these investment priorities in his 2011 State of the Union address, and even Republican leaders have admitted in private that this kind of government spending can create jobs. Yet in their actions, they haven't shown the level of ambition needed to push the U.S. economy onto a higher growth path. It's time to stop messing around and start thinking big. The time for a true supply-side stimulus is now.