Stimulus debate

October 2, 2009Jon Brooks Comments Off

Does today’s negative unemployment report offer evidence that this year’s giant stimulus bill isn’t working? And if so, is that because it wasn’t big enough or because more government spending isn’t the antidote to what ails us? A sampling of economists’ online opinions shows most sticking to their ideological guns, whatever the make.

Robert Reich, for example, is calling for a New Deal-like massive injection of new government spending, the deficit-be-damned:

So why is unemployment and underemployment so high, and why is it likely to remain high for some time? Because, as noted, people who are worried about their jobs or have no jobs, and who are also trying to get out from under a pile of debt, are not going do a lot of shopping. And businesses that don’t have customers aren’t going do a lot of new investing. And foreign nations also suffering high unemployment aren’t going to buy a lot of our goods and services.

And without customers, companies won’t hire. They’ll cut payrolls instead.

Which brings us to the obvious question: Who’s going to buy the stuff we make or the services we provide, and therefore bring jobs back? There’s only one buyer left: The government.

Let me say this as clearly and forcefully as I can: The federal government should be spending even more than it already is on roads and bridges and schools and parks and everything else we need. It should make up for cutbacks at the state level, and then some. This is the only way to put Americans back to work. We did it during the Depression. It was called the WPA.

Yes, I know. Our government is already deep in debt. But let me tell you something: When one out of six Americans is unemployed or underemployed, this is no time to worry about the debt.

When I was a small boy my father told me that I and my kids and my grand-kids would be paying down the debt created by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II. I didn’t even know what a debt was, but it kept me up at night. (But) America paid down FDR’s debt in the 1950s, when Americans went back to work, when the economy was growing again, and when our incomes grew, too. We paid taxes, and in a few years that FDR debt had shrunk to almost nothing.

You see? The most important thing right now is getting the jobs back, and getting the economy growing again.

People who now obsess about government debt have it backwards. The problem isn’t the debt. The problem is just the opposite. It’s that at a time like this, when consumers and businesses and exports can’t do it, government has to spend more to get Americans back to work and recharge the economy. Then – after people are working and the economy is growing – we can pay down that debt.

But if government doesn’t spend more right now and get Americans back to work, we could be out of work for years. And the debt will be with us even longer.

Ex-Federal Reserve economist Arnold Kling did not like the way the U.S. stimulus bill was structured. He writes on EconLog:

…there is a consensus that many countries at different times have tried small stimulus, which failed. An interesting question is whether these stimulus efforts were thought to be small at the time, or whether “small stimulus” is what you call a big stimulus after it fails.

Did this year’s stimulus fail? I think it is too soon to tell. My biggest complaint about this year’s stimulus has always been that while the bill was enacted this year, most of the spending takes place in the out years. If stimulus works, its effects should be cumulative. If it starts slowly, the effects will accumulate slowly.

If we try to address the weak economy of 2009, and the likely weak economy of 2010, by enacting a big spending boost for 2012 and 2013, that would not be good policy. I hope we can all agree on that.

UC Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong argues that the stimulus bill numbers never added up to an adequate response to the huge gap in economic output the country was experiencing in February.

….an estimate of the appropriate size of expansionary fiscal policy as the situation looked in August 2008: $450 billion in cumulative deficit spending spread out over the next four years. Then came… Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac… Lehman Brothers… AIG… the recession problem was at least twice as bad as it had looked in August, and over the next four and a half months until the February 17, 2009 signing of the ARRA the magnitude of the likely cumulative output gap doubled again…. If $450 billion was the appropriate size of a short-term deficit-spending program for the $1,350 billion cumulative output gap anticipated as of August 2008, then simple extrapolation suggests that the appropriate size of the boost to short-term deficit spending as of February 2009 was $1.8 trillion (over three to four years).

What we got was a cumulative number of $600 billion—roughly 1/3 aid to states, 1/3 tax cuts (in a good-faith effort by the Obama administration to propose a bipartisan plan that legislators of both parties could sign on to), and 1/3 infrastructure and other direct government purchases intended not so much to slow the decline as rather to boost the recovery…. At the technocratic level, the disproportion between the size of the response and the magnitude of the need is obvious.

But ex-Bush administration economist Greg Mankiw sees a stimulus failure in this month’s report and points to the Obama administration’s own projections as evidence. In a post called “Accountability,” he writes:

When the Obama stimulus plan was proposed, the president’s economic team put out a report in January 2009 that purported to show what would happen with and without the fiscal stimulus. The chart above is from page four that report, together with the actual results over the past couple months. As you can see, the actual outcome is significantly worse than the projection with the stimulus plan and is, in fact, roughly on track with what was projected without the stimulus.

What does this mean? One interpretation is that the fiscal stimulus has failed to achieve what Team Obama thought it would. Another interpretation is that the baseline was worse than they believed at the time. I am confident the report authors would adopt the second interpretation. If so, that fact is consistent with what I said in a previous post: In light of the shifting baseline, it is impossible to hold the administration accountable for whether its policies are achieving their intended effects.

To be clear, this lack of accountability is not a feature on this specific administration but is, instead, a reflection of the inherent uncertainties associated with macroeconomics. The administration, however, has not been particularly forthright in admitting to this lack of accountability. Indeed, the act of releasing quarterly reports on how many jobs have been “created or saved” gives the illusion of accountability without the reality.

We’d say “stimulating conversation” if it weren’t all so depressing.

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