Pres. Barack Obama doesn’t talk about “government spending,” he talks about “investing in America,” which sounds more thrilling but amounts to the same thing. And the man who fancies himself our national investment guru will no doubt take tonight’s State of the Union address to pitch us a bunch of new exciting financial opportunities, like some ephebic stockbroker just out of training. If we must endure the rhetoric of investment, it is fair to ask: How is Obama’s portfolio doing?
Compared to its slick prospectus, the Obama Fund is a dog, and its metrics — unemployment and growth — are stagnant and anemic, respectively. The Democrats promised that the $787 billion stimulus package would keep unemployment levels low — the best guaranteed return we’ve heard of since Bernie Madoff — but instead joblessness climbed from less than 8 percent to nearly 10 percent: a return of about negative 25 percent. And those shovel-ready stimulus projects turned out to be a lot like Madoff’s assets: fictional. After nearly a trillion bucks in “investment,” the most visible infrastructure improvement we have to show for it is a bunch of signs advertising the wonderfulness of the stimulus. If Obama were a rookie investment banker, would you give him a bonus for that performance? Probably not. Meanwhile, two years of unified Democratic management under Obama-Pelosi-Reid have left our national leverage ratio severely out of whack.
Obama has packed his administration with Wall Street bailout babies like JPMorgan rainmaker Bill Daley and corporate-welfare queens like General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, both of whom love “investing in America,” by which they mean “investing in politically connected enterprises such as JPMorgan and GE.” GE derives a great deal of its revenue from government contracts, including a recent Pentagon project described as a “wasteful boondoggle” by the secretary of defense himself. GE lobbied hard to fill the federal swill pail to the brim during the debate over the stimulus, and then began helping itself to the energy subsidies and green-tech goodies doled out thereafter. Mr. Daley’s banker benefactors, it goes without saying, are very much in favor of continued coddling.
It is worth noting that Mr. Immelt, who takes over for the venerable economist Paul Volcker, is the head of a panel recently renamed the “President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.” But government spending on imaginary “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects creates no jobs, and government spending on “wasteful boondoggles” does not contribute to national competitiveness. In fact, most government spending does not much contribute to the creation of jobs or national competitiveness, and corporate executives such as Mr. Daley and Mr. Immelt do not boast of a particularly distinguished record in government. That is not surprising, inasmuch as government is not a business. And with no apologies to those conservatives who occasionally fall into sloppy rhetoric, government should not be run like a business. Government, at its best, creates the conditions under which entrepreneurs can thrive and business can be done. It is not — or ought not to be — an operator in the business sphere. Such jobs as government creates (soldiers, policemen, bank inspectors) are products of necessity and prudence, and such “investments” as government makes (aircraft carriers, prisons) do not necessarily make efficient contributions to the material well-being of the nation. The defining activity of government — war — is an economic net loss, precipitated by trans-economic interests. It is true that government would do well to practice the shopkeepers’ virtues of thrift and husbandry, but these are not qualities much associated with the Obama administration or its economic advisers.
Government does not make investments. History suggests that it is not especially successful when it tries to do so, and the Obama administration has been a singularly ineffective manager of our national finances, its incompetence rivaled in modern times only by that of the Johnson administration. “Investing in America” is simply rhetorical camouflage deployed to avoid answering the simple questions: “Is this proposed spending wise? Is it the best and most prudent use of our money? Is it undertaken in accordance with our constitutional order and the proper role of government?” President Obama would prefer not to debate those questions, instead asking us to judge present outlays against future returns that may or may not live up to his promises.
Consider our recent national “investment” in education, which has seen spending more than double since 2000 with no discernable returns to anybody other than the public-sector unions: high costs, zero profit. In reality, the defining feature of government “investment” is that there is no discernable relationship between outlays and returns. And calling new spending programs “investments” — as Obama did about 15 times in his stimulus pitch and about two dozen times during his 2010 speech at Carnegie Mellon University — does not make them wise or profitable.
Congressional Republicans stand ready to meet the president more than halfway on those measures that do stand to make the nation more competitive — rediscovering fiscal probity, returning the federal government to its proper role, living within our national means — and if President Obama desires to reap returns from his remaining political capital, that is an investment worth making.