John Cochrane's blog
As in other recent projects (growth essay, testimony) I'm trying to synthesize, and also to find policies and ways to talk about them that avoid the stale left-right debate, where people just shout base-pleasing spin ever louder. "You're a tax and spend socialist" "You just want tax cuts for your rich buddies" is getting about as far as "You always leave your socks on the floor" "Well, you spend the whole day on the phone to your mother."
We did this as an interview before a live audience, at a Chicago Booth alumni event held at Hoover, so it's a bit lighter than the usual EconTalk. This kind of thought helps the synthesis process a lot for me. Russ' pointed questions make me think, as did the audience in follow up Q&A (not recorded). Plus, it was fun.
I always leave any interview full of regrets about things I could have said better or differently. The top of the regret pile here was leaving a short joke in response to Russ' question about what the government should spend more on. Russ was kindly teeing up the section of the growth essay "there is good spending" and perhaps "spend more to spend less" ideas in several other recent writings. It would have been a good idea to go there and spend a lot more time on the question.
From the growth essay, I think the government could profitably spend a lot more money on the justice system. That so many of our fellow citizens rot in jail awaiting trials, that the vast majority never receive a trial anyway but a hasty plea-bargain, that their legal representation is so thin, is a disgrace -- and causing huge problems. If a wrongly accused young man spends two years in jail before charges are dropped, the consequences for him and his family are awful. Business relies on a speedy and efficient justice system to adjudicate commercial disputes, and that seems to be falling apart too, partly for lack of resources. The cost here is peanuts compared to, say, peanut subsidies.
Our public infrastructure doesn't just consist of steel and asphalt. The public software needs investment as well, or more.
Public health is one of the most essential public goods. Of all the civilization-ending scenarios you can think of, nuclear war and a pandemics top my list. Many past pandemics followed a surge in globalization -- the plague of the 1350s, that wiped out half or more of the population; the smallpox that wiped out native America in the 1500s, the 1918 flu. (Larry Summers has a good article on this point.) We are ripe for antibiotics to stop working and new diseases to spread catastrophically, if not among humans among the plants and animals on which we depend. Don't count on the UN and the WHO.
The government can profitably fund basic research. "Yes, 95% of funded research is silly. Yes, the government allocates money inefficiently. Yes, research should also attract private donations. But the 5% that is not silly is often vital, and can produce big breakthroughs." (Basic research is not the same thing as subsidies for commercializing research.)
Yes, Martha, I should have said, there are public goods here and there.
Of course, more spending on things like these does not imply more spending overall. They're all remarkably cheap, and could easily be funded by spending a little less on some of the colossal waste. (Example: We spend $6 billion on the FBI and $13 billion on border control.) Of course, one must also spend wisely and use the results wisely. And one could add a lot to the list. But repeating a fun joke about spending is not the right answer.