A Flat Pyramid Scheme
In the course of checking a claim by Congressman Jim Langevin, C. Eugene Emery, Jr., offers this explanation of the calculation behind the “multiplier effect” allowing Democrats to claim, as Langevin did, “for every $1 we spend on unemploymen t benefits, $1.90 is put into our economy”:
When you give $1 to people who have lost their jobs and they have run out of savings, those dollars get spent. So Mary gives it to Mike down the street to buy some of his fruits and vegetables. Mike, who relies on customers like Mary, might put 25 cents in the bank but use the rest to buy seed and fertilizer from Tom’s store in town. Tom might save a dime of the 75 cents he got from Mike but use the remaining 60 cents for a new pair of glasses.
When economists calculate the gross domestic product, they add up all those transactions (excluding the amount set aside in savings and money that ends up overseas if you buy foreign goods). In this limited example, Mary’s $1 has added $2.35 ($1 plus 75 cents plus 60 cents) to the gross domestic product. Yes, it’s still just $1, but by passing it along it has helped three people.
For purposes of economic theory, this is an interesting consequence of the definition of the GDP, but in contriving a policy to increase economic activity and employment, it’s not so useful. The GDP calculation does not differentiate between a dollar that Mike spends because Mary transferred her government cash to him and a dollar that Mike pulls out of his savings because he thinks investing in his business is a better strategy. To get the economy rolling of its own volition, policies must encourage the latter.
Since a government in deficit has no savings of its own, it must take Mary’s dollar from somebody else, whether decreasing some other expenditure, increasing taxes, or borrowing from the future. That means that Mike might reasonably expect the personal profits from his business to decrease, encouraging him to find other things to do with his money than invest in his economic output (savings, foreign transactions, etc.).
Whether we continue to extend unemployment benefits is more a moral question than an economic one. But on the economic side, priority number 1 ought to be encouraging business owners and entrepreneurs to take on the risk that ultimately provides folks like Mary with employment.