Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Is China a Case for Stimulus?

Is China an example of fiscal stimulus successfully maintaining a growing economy? Tyler Cowen and Matt Yglesias offer contrasting opinons.  (A link to Cowens which also links Yglesias' blog is here.)  Cowen argues that the spending has been riddled with malinvestments and influenced by corruption so helps demonstrate an important problem with massive stimulus programs. Yglesias counters with the argument that no sector has lower productivity than the unemployment sector, so that even malinvestments are better than no investments.  He also states that no one in China is debating whether the typical household is better off than it was four years ago.

But Yglesias is ignoring a couple of points in my view. First, it is a short-run view only.  Just as I can live well by running up debt, eventually it has to stop. The same is true for nations.  Second, and relatedly, if we asked the typical American household in 2006 or early 2007 whether they were better off than four years earlier, most would have said they were better off.  Unemployment was relatively low, housing prices were high and rising, the stock market was booming, and the consumer was seen as the engine of strong economic growth. But that all came crashing down once house prices collapsed.  Given the overbuilding of office buildings and apartments in China, it is difficult to believe that a similar crash won't happen there.

A final thing to consider is the political situation in China.  The autocratic central government is very concerned about social stability.  Maintaining growth and increased GDP is crucial to prevent social unrest.  But the measures being used to maintain growth may cause even more social unrest if and when the whole thing falls apart. 

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