Hair of the Dog

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"Could there be a simpler illustration of trading long-term pain for short-term gain?"

The GDP numbers out yesterday, which showed economic growth at 3.5% in the third quarter, brought a deafening chorus from public and private economists who all agreed that the recession is officially over. With such a strong report, they are happy to tell us that not only has the Fat Lady finished her aria, but she has left the building and is sipping champagne in the bath. As usual, it falls on me to rain on the parade.

Even the giddiest commentators admit that the upside GDP surprise resulted almost entirely from government interventions. But, by pushing up public and private debt, expanding government, deepening trade deficits, and pushing down savings rates, these interventions have succeeded only in putting our economy back on an unsustainable path of borrowing and spending. Accordingly, they have prevented the rebalancing necessary for long-term health. Could there be a simpler illustration of trading long-term pain for short-term gain?

The unpopular truth is that rather than curing the economy, government stimulus has made it sicker. The Bush administration and the Greenspan Fed pursued this policy recipe in the 20022003 recession. The result was four years of phony growth, greater global imbalances, and the development of unsupportable asset bubbles. Clearly we have learned nothing from those mistakes.

If the government were not 'stimulating the economy,' higher interest rates and falling home prices would have hamstrung residential construction. That would have been the right move. Instead, based on the false economic signals of the 'stimulus,' we continue to build houses for which no legitimate demand exists.

The same is true for cars. Because of stimulus money, Americans are buying cars that they otherwise would not have.

In the end, this stimulus, just like prior doses, will only worsen the condition it is meant to cure. When it wears off, the resulting recession will be even bigger than the one that everyone assumes has just ended. Until the impulse to fight recessions with government stimulus is quashed, genuine economic growth will never return.

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