Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Did the Stimulus Work?

A recent paper by Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi claims that if not for the response of the federal government, the unemployment rate would be 15.7 percent, far higher than the current 9.5 percent. The press quickly reported that this vindicated the Obama stimulus plan. But the fact is that most of the positive effects cited in their paper came not from the stimulus but from stabilizing actions of the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and TARP...

The Romer-Bernstein paper has often been cited as saying that if the package passed, the unemployment rate would peak below 8 percent in the middle of 2009 and would decline to below 7.5 percent by now. Obviously this has not happened. The administration, along with Blinder and Zandi, argue that it is not fair to conclude that this proves the package was a failure since Romer and Bern-stein underestimated the severity of the recession and that unemployment was already 8.2 percent in the first quarter of 2009, higher than the assumed peak.

I am sympathetic to their argument and Chart 1 corrects for their complaint by raising their estimate of where unemployment started in their experiment. The lowest line provides the original estimate of the path of unemployment provided by Romer and Bernstein on January 9, 2009. The second line replicates the Romer and Bernstein path, but raises the initial unemployment rate from their assumed 7.5 percent to 8.2 percent. This was the actual average of the unemployment rate in the first quarter of 2009, the period in which the stimulus was passed. The third line provides a more extreme alternative by raising the initial unemployment rate to the 9.3 percent average of the second quarter 2009. The first modification fully compensates for their objection while the second modification more than compensates for their concern...

Our policy problem today is that the bill that was actually passed into law was both so expensive and so badly flawed that it gives the whole concept of macroeconomic stimulus a bad name.

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