Chris Edwards

It drives a lot of us at Cato nuts to read news stories almost every day which simply assume that government spending is good for the economy. Any defense or nondefense spending restraint will hurt economic growth, it is assumed. Even a recent AEI study seemed to accept this Keynesian concept.

Government spending certainly helps the government-dependent parts of the U.S. economy. But most Americans live in the private economy, and so they might like to know how government budget actions affect the economy that they live in.

So let’s explore the spending-to-growth relationship with national income accounts data. I ran a simple regression with 60 years of data, 1953 to 2012. The variable I was trying to explain was real private GDP growth. Private GDP is total GDP less the government portion of GDP from Table 1.1.5. The explanatory variable was total (federal/state/local) government spending from Table 3.1. Both variables were converted to constant dollars using the GDP deflator.

The chart below shows the Excel plot of the results. The downward slope of Excel’s fitted trend line means that higher government spending growth in a year corresponds to reduced private GDP growth that year. For example, if real government spending growth was zero, private GDP would be expected to grow at 4.2 percent. If real government spending growth was 5 percent, private GDP growth would be expected to fall to 2.8 percent.

The F-statistic for the regression was 4.1 indicating overall significance at the 95 percent level, which is the usual level economists look for to be confident of a solid relationship. The T-statistic on the government spending variable was 2.0, which indicates significance at over 95 percent. (Note that the statistical results were even stronger when I included data back to 1946 because post-war government cuts coincided with robust economic growth.)

Chris Edwards

Chris Edwards is the director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, and editor of Before joining Cato, Edwards was a senior economist on the congressional Joint Economic Committee, a manager with PricewaterhouseCoopers, and an economist with the Tax Foundation.

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