Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Obama and the Stimulus

Everyone agrees that some kind of fiscal stimulus might help the economy, and that running budget deficits is appropriate in a recession. The stage was thus set for the popular President to forge a bipartisan consensus that combined ideas from both parties. A major cut in the corporate tax favored by Republicans could have been added to Democratic public works spending for a quick political triumph that might have done at least some economic good...

They cleaned out their intellectual cupboards and wrote a bill that is 90% social policy, and 10% economic policy.

Speaking to a House Democratic retreat on Thursday night, Mr. Obama took on those critics. "So then you get the argument, well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill. What do you think a stimulus is? (Laughter and applause.) That's the whole point. No, seriously. (Laughter.) That's the point. (Applause.)"

Mr. Obama is now endorsing a sort of reductionist Keynesianism that argues that any government spending is an economic stimulus. This is so manifestly false that we doubt Mr. Obama really believes it. He has to know that it matters what the government spends the money on, as well as how it is financed. A dollar doled out in jobless benefits may well be spent by the worker who receives it. That $1 of spending will count as economic activity and add to GDP.

But that same dollar can't be conjured out of thin air. The government has to take that dollar away from someone else -- either in higher taxes, or by issuing new debt in the form of a bond. The person who is taxed or buys the bond will have $1 less to spend. If the beneficiary of that $1 spends it on something less productive than the taxed American or the lender would have, then the net impact on growth will be negative...

The spending will take the U.S. budget deficit up to some 12% of GDP, about double the peak of the 1980s and into uncharted territory. The tragedy of the Obama stimulus is that we are getting so little for all that money.

from the Wall Street Journal

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