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EATING THE SEED CORN

The US is paying for a wasted decade in economic policy

Reuters/Mandel Ngan
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  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published

Rising prices and the Fed’s efforts to combat them have put the economy in a tight spot. A recession looms if the global economy doesn’t catch some breaks in the form of unclogging supply chains, extra production of oil and gas, or a deal to let Ukraine export more wheat.

Like most problems, inflation is easier to solve in advance. The causes of today’s rising prices aren’t necessarily avoidable, but it is possible, even easy, to imagine the US economy being in a better position to deal with this pressure. When historians assess US economic policy in the 2010s, they’ll see a decade of missed opportunity.

For example, if gas prices are the main pain point today, wouldn’t it be better if the US had moved to decarbonize its economy more quickly? If rent is a major contributor to inflation, wouldn’t more houses help drive it down? If the supply chain is snarled, would deeper ports and better airports smooth things out?

Looking back at the policy debates of the last decade, it’s increasingly clear that the decision to let public investment fall to the lowest levels since World War II between 2014 and 2020 was a major mistake. The “jobless recovery” from the 2008 financial crisis left the Federal Reserve holding interest rates at near zero for five years before slow hiking began. Those low interest rates made public investment even more attractive than it might otherwise be.

We knew it at the time

This was clear at the time: Then-Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke repeatedly urged Congress to step up productive investment. In 2013, he complained about the “strong headwinds created by federal fiscal policy” and urged Congress to show less restraint. Economist Larry Summers, now an inflation hawk, was also urging more investment to combat “secular stagnation,” the idea that businesses wouldn’t continue investing if they saw few prospects for growth. Instead, spending limits were imposed as Republicans rejected the bulk of the Obama administration’s investment proposals, even in the context of a bipartisan deficit reduction deal. Ironically, the specter of inflation was often cited as a reason for these decisions even though there was little risk.

In retrospect, this was clearly the wrong choice and a missed opportunity. It’s not just that interest rates were low; it’s why they were low: There was slack in the economy, with potential workers and capital sitting on the sidelines waiting to be mobilized. If they had combined to build useful things—deeper ports, public transit and housing, more runways, bridges, pandemic response plans, electric vehicle chargers, solar and wind power plants—it’s entirely possible our inflation problem would be more manageable. These things would be just as useful if we built them today, but they will cost more thanks to higher prices of goods and labor, on top of the costs of financing.

Decisions about public investment are closely watched by the private sector. Consider the saga of American housing. Today, there aren’t enough homes to for all the people that want to buy them. After the mortgage crisis in 2008 devastated the home building industry, skilled tradespeople left the industry and new ones failed to join it. The companies themselves, seeing the same economic indicators as everyone else, planned more conservatively and built less. Their suppliers in the timber industry cut back, too. And then, when demand for homes shot up, the industry simply couldn’t build more.

Those dynamics played out in choices businesses made across industries. Oil refiners didn’t expand their production capacity in an environment of low growth and predictions of a carbon-free future. But green energy hasn’t filled the gap and gas prices have shot up without additional capacity.

Would more spending during this period have led to interest rates rising sooner? Undoubtedly, but that would have been a sign of a healthier economy. It now seems clear that there was fiscal space for significant investment before the pandemic that would have left the country and the Fed better prepared for a crisis.

The world still needs more houses, energy, batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines

To be clear, the idea of a missed opportunity shouldn’t suggest that now isn’t a good time to invest in infrastructure; capital investments of that sort, as Fernanda Nechio, an economist at the SF Federal Reserve Bank explains, have less of an impact on inflation than do transfer payments. But the fact that much of what we would want to spend on today was also under discussion a decade ago should emphasize how much time has been lost.

There’s an argument from some policy analysts that interest rates aren’t that big a factor in the cost of US infrastructure. For example, Eli Dourado, a researcher at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, says the priority should be bringing high US building costs in line with other countries.

The problem of US state capacity is real and needs addressing, but it’s worth remembering that the same logic was deployed as an excuse not to make investments. Pitting the two concepts against each other is unnecessary. Indeed, if it were straightforward to reduce US project costs by 10x, as Dourado uses in an illustrative example, we would have done it—and we should still try. But the reality is that breaking free of consultants, regulations, and other cost drivers isn’t politically simple, and only underscores the usefulness of cheap financing. Indeed, public investment can be a tool for deregulation.

And politics matters here. Many of the officials who set US policy in the previous decade thought that they were being responsible, but instead they were frittering away a chance to make the country and the economy more resilient. The lesson of the post-pandemic economy is that real goods matter as much as financial conditions. Consider the point made by the financial journalist Matt Klein, who notes that European policymakers cited the adage “fix the roof while the sun is shining” as they worked to lower their debt after the financial crisis. These countries are in better fiscal positions today, but it’s not doing them much good because they didn’t address energy dependence on Russia. Now, they may be able to borrow more responsibly—but the natural gas ports and wind farms they want to build now will take far longer thanks to the scarcity of key materials and labor.

That same principal holds true more broadly: The US has real material needs that could be met with better infrastructure for transportation, energy, and housing. It would be better to build now than not to build at all, but it would have been better still to have started building five years ago.

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