Larry Summers Gets This Right: We Really Need An Infrastructure Decade

Dave Johnson

Here we are in “Infrastructure Week” and here we are with a new argument for a massive infrastructure investment project – worldwide.

Last week Peter Coy wrote at Bloomberg, in “How to Pull the World Economy Out of Its Rut,” about economist Larry Summers’ argument that we need massive public investment. Coy writes that Summers has been “jetting around the world” trying to convince central bankers “to reach out to the governments they work for … and insist on strong fiscal stimulus in the form of infrastructure spending and the like.” (i.e. “Public investment”.)

The case for this is very, very strong. Never mind that around the world infrastructure is crumbling. Just doing the basic job of government and making sure that things like infrastructure are up to par has fallen out of favor among the world’s elites, because “government spending.” Summers makes a different argument about why public investment – government spending on things countries and people and economies need – is essential to keep the world’s economy going.

Coy writes, “Summers’s deeper argument is that world growth is stuck in a rut because there’s a chronic shortage of demand for goods and services and a concomitant excess of desired savings.”

This Is Extremely Important And Summers Is Exactly Right

This is extremely important and Summers is exactly right on this. Too many people don’t have enough income, while a few people have lots of savings. But the few with lots of savings don’t have safe places to invest it because too many people don’t have enough income. In other words, the world faces a “chronic shortage of demand” and a “concomitant excess of desired savings.”

Capitalist economies necessarily move toward concentration of wealth, so over time a few people end up with lots of savings while most people get poorer. (Economist Thomas Piketty: “r > g” where ‘r’ is the rate of return on capital and ‘g’ is the rate of growth in the economy.) Since regular people participate in the economy by using money to demand goods and services, demand decreases as they get poorer.

Without something stepping in to break this cycle more and more of the resources end up in fewer and fewer hands, and after a while the entire system breaks down. Therefore in a capitalist economy government action is needed to redistribute “money” (resources and savings) away from the concentration at the top, back to more of “the people” so that they can again participate in the economy (demand).

This circle of money flowing around – demand gives savings good places to invest to meet that demand – shows why government redistribution is essential to keeping capitalist economies going. Taxing those with a lot and using the money to build a sidewalk is redistribution because even poor people get to walk on the sidewalk. But even for those who hate the idea of redistribution, those sidewalks and roads and bridges and the rest are absolutely essential to economies. Even more essential, the jobs that are created to do the work building those things creates essential consumer demand.

The whole world is stuck in a rut because there is too much money at the top chasing insufficient demand.

Too Much Money At The Top Chasing Insufficient Demand

Wealth has concentrated. Inequality is extreme worldwide. The result is a worldwide “savings glut.” There is very little consumer demand so investment in things consumers/the private economy might buy is not bringing much of a return. This means there is too much money floating around the world looking for a safe investment that will bring a return. With few investments promising a safe return investors don’t want to risk investing.

Investment in the private sector has become too risky because of insufficient demand. So instead of finding private-sector investments, people are “parking” their money in government bonds. Governments that are safe are getting those savings to hold instead, sometimes even being paid (negative interest rates) to hold it.

Using different words, this shows there is a huge demand for government debt. That’s why the price has gotten so high (low interest rates mean there is a high price for a bond). Supply and demand: there is too much demand and too little supply of government debt.

Coy words it this way, “The interest rate, like any price, reflects supply and demand. It’s fallen because the demand for loans is weak and the supply of loans from savers, who have extra cash to deploy, is strong.”

The Things Governments Do Creates Demand In The Private Economy

The things governments do creates demand in the private economy when the private economy is not creating enough by itself. Infrastructure, investment in the people, education, job training, science and research, etc. are the underpinnings of the private economy later, but they wear out. Roads and bridges wear out, laid-off workers lose skills and well-educated people eventually get older and you need to do the next round of public investment. Our last round started drying up with the “Reagan era” ideology of “starve the beast” by killing government’s ability to spend.

When the private economy is doing well, savings finds places to invest. When savings is already thus engaged, interests rates rise. High interest rates mean government gets less when it sells its bonds. These higher rates are the market signal that government debt is not so much in demand, and governments need to borrow (and invest) less to keep the economy going. And because the private sector is going well people need fewer public services so governments don’t need to borrow to get the money to provide them…

The Markets Are Demanding That Governments Issue More Debt

Right now interest rates are extremely low – even negative in some countries. This high price for government debt means the markets are demanding that governments issue more debt. This is the law of supply and demand. Again: money markets are demanding more supply of government debt.

What should governments do with the money they get from selling more bonds? They should do what governments do with money. By definition this is “public investment.” Build roads, educate, feed people, etc. But instead of responding to the demands of markets, the anti-government ideology in control is forcing governments to do less, get smaller, need less money, issue fewer bonds.

For decades governments have been trying to follow the “less government” ideological mantra. But economics (and markets) says there is an essential role for government and public investment or economies don’t work. As governments withdraw from their role, economies stop working. Demand dries up, those with lots of money have nowhere to put it… and here we are. Secular stagnation.

So government cutbacks lead to low economy demand. The cycle is necessary, taxing the rich and using the money for government investment both creates demand at the time though spending and jobs, and the things it invest IN create demand later.

So the same thing has now been said about a dozen different ways here. The markets are demanding that governments around the world open up the spending spigot, invest in infrastructure and education and services other things governments do to make people’s lives better. The markets are demanding it and the proof is low interest rates on government debt. Not just here but worldwide.

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