[T]he [Obama administration's] new [infrastructure] initiative is a chance for me to air one of my pet peeves: the stupidity of the claim, which you hear all the time — and you’ll hear again now — that it’s always better to provide stimulus in the form of tax cuts, because individuals know better than the government what to do with their money.Yes.
Why is this claim stupid? Because Econ 101 tells us that there are some things the government must provide, namely public goods whose benefits can’t be internalized by the market.
So suppose we’re going to put $50 billion of resources that would otherwise be idle to work. Is it better to use them to produce public goods like improved roads, or private goods like more consumer durables? That’s not at all obvious — and anyone who tells you that basic economics settles the question, that is says that devoting more resources to production of private goods is better, doesn’t understand Econ 101.
And there’s a pretty good argument to be made that we are, in fact, starved for public goods in this country, so that it would actually be a good idea to shift some resources to public goods production even if we were at full employment; in that case, we should definitely give priority to public goods when trying to put unemployed resources to work.
Also see Ryan Avent and Mark Thoma.