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The case for an investment budget

Part of the President’s State of the Union message and of his second term agenda apparently will focus on public investments in education, infrastructure, and basic R&D.

That’s good news. But how do we fund these investments when discretionary spending is being cut to the bone in order to reduce the budget deficit?

Answer: By treating public investments differently from current spending.

No rational family would borrow to pay for a vacation but not borrow to send a kid to college. No rational business would borrow to finance current salaries but not to pay for critical new machinery.

Yet that’s, in effect, what the federal government does now. The federal budget doesn’t distinguish between borrowing for current expenditures that keep things going, and future investments that build future productivity. All borrowing is treated the same.

A rational federal budget would treat them differently. It would allow additional borrowing for public investments whenever the expected return on those investments is higher than the cost of the borrowing. And it wouldn’t borrow a dime if the return on the investment is less than the borrowing costs.

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