Brian Romanchuk has a characteristically thoughtful post making “the case against growth and stimulus.” He’s responding to pieces by Larry Summers and John Cochrane arguing that macroeconomic policy should focus more on output growth.
Brian has two objections to this. First, environmental resource constraints are real. Not in an absolute sense — in principle a given throughput of physical inputs can be associated with an arbitrarily high GDP. But in our economies as currently organized there is a tight connection between rising GDP and increased use of fossil fuels. Even leaving aside climate change concerns, that means that faster growth may well be cut off by a spike in oil prices.  The second objection is that the link between higher growth and better labor-market outcomes may not be as tight as Summers suggests. In Brian’s view, things like public investment may not do much for incomes at the bottom because the
U.S. labour market is obviously segmented. The “high skill” segments are doing relatively well… Non-targeted “demand management” (such as infrastructure spending) is probably going to require creating jobs for college-educated workers. (You need an engineering degree to sign off on plans, for example.) It is a safe bet that the job market for college graduates would become extremely tight before the U-6 unemployment rate even begins to close on its historical lows. This would cause inflationary pressures…
This suggests that the focus should be on direct job-creation programs for people left out of the private market, rather than policies to raise aggregate demand.
Since I am (very slowly) making an argument that there is space for more expansionary policy, evidently I disagree.
Before saying why, I should add one other argument on Brian’s side. One reason to be against “growth” as a political project is that higher GDP does not increase people’s wellbeing. In my view this is clearly true for countries with per-capita GDP above $15,000-20,000 or so. This is a moderately respectable view these days, though obviously a minority one. For most economists the case for growth is still so obvious it doesn’t even need stating — having more stuff makes people happier.
I don’t believe that. But I still think it’s worth arguing that there is more space for expansionary policy to raise GDP. For three reasons:
First, I think Summers and Cochrane are right (!) about the importance of tight labor markets to raise wages, flatten the income distribution and increase the social power of working people more broadly. I don’t think you would have had the mass social movements of the 1960s and 70s (even on such apparently non-economic ones as feminism and gay rights) if there hadn’t been a long period of very tight labor markets.  The threat of unemployment maintains the power of the boss in the workplace, and that reinforces all kinds of other hierarchies as well.
Corollary to this, I’m not convinced that the labor market is as segmented as Brian suggests. I think that in many cases, people with more credentials get to the front of the queue for the same jobs, as opposed to competing for a distinct pool of jobs. It seems to me the historical evidence is unambiguous that when overall unemployment falls there are disproportionate gains for those at the bottom.
Second, I think the idea of a hard ceiling to potential output is an important part of the logic of scarcity that hems in our political imagination in all kinds of harmful ways. Yes, infrastructure spending, and sometimes also increased social spending, even a basic income, can be presented as measures to boost demand and output. But you can also look at it the other way — these are good things on the merits, and the claim that they will boost output is just a way of defusing arguments that we “can’t afford” them. To me, the policy importance of saying we are far from any real supply constraint is not that higher output is desirable in itself (apart from its labor-market effects); it’s that it strengthens the argument for public spending that’s desirable for its own sake.
Third, on a more academic level, I think the idea of a fixed exogenous potential output is one of the most important patches (along with the “natural rate of interest”) covering up the disconnect between the “real exchange” world of economic theory and the actual monetary production economy we live in. Assuming that the long-run path of output is fixed by real supply-side factors is a way of quarantining monetary and demand factors to the short run. So the more space we open up for demand-side effects, the more space we have to analyze the economy as a system of money claims and payments and coordination problems rather than the efficient allocation of scare resources
 As it happens, this was the the topic of the first real post on this blog.
 The best discussion of this link I know of is in Armstrong, Glyn and Harrison’s Capitalism Since 1945. Jefferson Cowie’s more recent book on the ’70s makes a similar case for the US specifically.
(I wrote this post a month ago and for some reason never posted it.)
UPDATE: There’s another argument I meant to mention. When I look around I see a world full of energetic, talented, creative people forced to spend their days doing tedious shitwork and performing servility. I find it morally offensive to claim that a job at McDonald’s or in a nail salon or Amazon warehouse is the fullest use of anyone’s potential. When Keynes says that we will build “our New Jerusalem out of the labour which in our former vain folly we were keeping unused and unhappy in enforced idleness,” he doesn’t have to mean literal idleness. In a society in which aggregate expenditure was constantly pushing against supply constraints, millions of people today who spend the working hours of the day having the humanity slowly ground out of them would instead be developing their capacities as engineers, artists, electricians, doctors, scientists. To say that most of the jobs we expect people to do today make full use of their potential is a vile slander, even if we are only measuring potential by the narrow standards of GDP.