Spending on Public Investments: Too Low but Getting Lower

The Murray-Ryan budget deal that passed the House and will approved by the Senate as soon as today provides some marginal and temporary relief from planned spending cuts over the next two years. However, it does nothing to derail the disastrous longer-term march towards cutting discretionary spending to historically low rates over the next decade. And given that the large majority of all federally-financed public investments come out of discretionary spending, these spending cuts are completely inconsistent with any policy that claims to value public investment.

Let’s define “public investment,” as my colleague Josh Bivens did earlier this year, as spending that “builds the nation’s capital stock by devoting resources” to the basic physical infrastructure, innovative activity, green investments, and education “that leads to higher productivity and/or higher living standards.” This sort of spending has a great bang-per-buck ratio in the current economic environment, as it leads immediately toward more jobs by boosting demand, and also helps amp up productivity growth in ways more likely to be broadly distributed across the population.

The Murray-Ryan budget deal increases federal spending by $63 billion over the next two years relative to the existing spending caps, a sum that will be divided equally between defense and non-defense functions. However, simple dollar figures (even ones that are 11 digits long) do not adequately explain what’s going on with federal spending. After factoring in population gains, the growth of the economy, and inflation, the relief provided by these spending increases (relative to existing spending caps) is extraordinarily modest. And relative to the spending that would be needed to make a significant dent in the 7.9 million “jobs-gap” facing the economy, they are small indeed.

Further, this temporary relief from the full brunt of the sequester does nothing to change the troubling long-term trend that sees discretionary spending shrink and public investment atrophy. In the graph below, I separate out the portion of federal spending that can be categorized as “public investment” by applying data compiled by former EPI analyst Ethan Pollack. This allows us to see how cuts in non-defense discretionary spending decimate funding for public investments. As it turns out, the Murray-Ryan deal doesn’t spare spending for needed public investment; it’s just a drop of water in an extraordinarily leaky bucket.

This is but another example of how our current deficit-obsessed politics are hindering the potential for economic growth. While small-government conservatives keep telling us we have a “spending problem,” spending on vital investments continues to fall through the floor. And allowing the nation’s public capital stock to languish seems like a truly odd way to pass on a better economic future for our children and grandchildren.