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The Pseudo Stimulus | The Nation

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The Pseudo Stimulus

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WHAT ARE WE STIMULATING?

About the Author

James S. Henry
James S. Henry is an economist, lawyer and investigative journalist, and former chief economist at McKinsey & Co....

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If it really is time for accountability, we should start by holding banks and financial institutions responsible for their actions and not allow them to rob us again with TARP II.

The US economy rewarded the finance industry at the expense of our most creative problem-solvers. We need an innovation revival to grow our way back to health.

Given this situation, the US economy's influence on the global situation, and the importance of resetting expectations, the stakes for Obama's very first economic initiatives are enormous. Unfortunately, the first drafts already adopted by the House and under debate in the Senate are disappointing.

Surely, at these prices we deserved a much more carefully targeted anti-Depression program. Instead, over 63 percent of Obama's $825 billion-plus in new spending and tax cuts won't even be felt for at least a year, and more than $100 billion won't show up until 2012 or beyond. Even if the plan works as advertised, it would only reduce unemployment by less than one percentage point a year, relative to the more than 9 percent baseline projection we are facing.

But this plan will almost certainly not work as advertised. It has been weighed down with $275 billion in tax cuts that would have very modest short-term multipliers. At least 21 percent to 25 percent of Obama's tax credits would go to recipients in the top 20 percent, with incomes above $113,000. These folks are more likely to save the money than those with lower incomes--and right how what we need is spending, not saving.

Evidently these tax cuts were included out of some broad-minded attempt to reach out to Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats. One might have thought they were already sated by a decade of record tax cuts for upper-income groups, starting with Bill Clinton's sharp reduction of capital gains taxes in 1997--even larger, by the way, than George W. Bush's. But Obama's diplomatic gesture yielded not a single Republican vote in the House last week, and also failed to win over eleven Democrats. Welcome back to Earth, Mr. President.

Even Obama's $550 billion of extra spending will not be sufficiently stimulative. First, around $200 billion will be channeled through state aid. On average, this will have an even lower multiplier than tax cuts, because of bureaucratic delays and the fact that our political system always channels a disproportionate share of aid to less-needy states. At one end of the spectrum, six states with unemployment rates above 9 percent now account for about one-fourth of the nation's unemployment--2.8 million people. Under Obama's program these states would get less than 20 percent of all this state-channeled aid, an average of $8,623 per jobless person. But ten mainly Western states with unemployment rates below 5 percent will get nearly $20,000 per unemployed person.

Second, despite the sales rhetoric about promoting recovery and saving jobs, these were clearly not the plan's only--or even its most important--objectives. If they had been, there'd be far more up-front spending on direct job creation and programs with higher multipliers and faster paybacks, like unemployment benefits and populist debt relief. There'd also be more top-down control.

Instead what we have is a dog's breakfast of pet projects, spread across 104 federal agencies, from the Administration on Aging and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to Fish and Wildlife and the National Endowment for the Arts. Dozens of projects were evidently extracted from various liberal wish lists, dusted off and dressed up in the latest "recovery-jobs" couture. Almost anything can qualify so long as it carries a big enough price tag: digital TV conversion ($640 million, on top of the $1.3 billion already spent for this worthy cause), port security ($600 million), research on biomass and geothermal ($1.2 billion), constructing the "smart grid" ($4.4 billion), climate science ($390 million), fixing Amtrak ($800 million), developing satellites ($460 million), restoring wildlife habitats ($400 million), preserving forest health ($850 million), special education ($13.3 billion), immunization ($954 million), STD prevention ($350 million), water projects ($13.7 billion), preparing for a flu pandemic ($620 million), grants to local police ($4 billion), advanced batteries ($2 billion), wireless broadband ($6 billion), a new data center for Social Security ($400 million)...

The overall impression is a parody of bloviated corporate liberalism. It is as if every deep-sea creature in the ocean suddenly came to the surface at the same time. There they all are, writhing and waiting for someone to make sense of the overall game plan.

Road and bridge repair be damned! Why worry about being unemployed when there's so much else to do? Soon we'll all be firing up the clean-coal stoves and sewage-fired generators, recharging our federally subsidized Volts and the underground battery farms and heading on over to new neighborhood health centers, where we'll download some interactive broadband training on aging and avoiding STDs. Then perhaps we'll plant a tree or apply for grants to "weatherize" or found a "rural enterprise." By then it will be time to pick up Little Dorothy at Early Head Start, get her vaccinated, say hey to the new federally funded "local" police chief, artists and high school teachers, then kick back in front of the converter box with a long cool draught of federal H2O and a generous helping of nutritious cuisine from the "local" Emergency Food store--making sure that the CO2 that we generate is properly sequestered and not bubbling up through the neighbor's brand new geothermal system.

By the laws of probability, of course, at least a few of these schemes may actually turn out to have some merit. But it is clear that Washington's finest lobbyists and law firms--second only to Wall Street in terms of sheer venality--have already been hard at work to insure that no key client has been left behind: electric utilities, the coal industry, telecoms, agribusiness, the IT industry, the teachers unions, the Asphalt Pavement Alliance, the Portland Cement Association ("we pour strength into our recovery"), commercial real estate developers and even venture capitalists, are all lined up to profit from Obama's extraordinary spending spree.

I'm beginning to sound like a Republican wingnut. But really, at lightning speed, we've gone from booting single mothers off the dole in the interests of "personal responsibility" (saving a grand total of--what, Bill Clinton?--maybe $5 billion per year at most, while finding jobs for only half of the 60 percent who got the boot) to having almost every single key interest group in the country lining up with a tin cup, right behind the banks.

More important, from a global perspective, Obama's program takes the eye of the ball. What the world economy desperately needs most right now from the US economy--remember, we're the ones who originated this debacle--is not "reinvention," or some hastily-assembled collection of alternative energy demonstration projects, but a good, old-fashioned healthy US market recovery.

Once that is in place, there will be plenty of time and money to save the planet. But unless that is in place, there will be no serious worldwide attention paid to climate change, global warming or alternative energy, nor will there be necessary funds and economic incentives that are required to really fix the the problem. At a time when tens of millions are having a hard time feeding their families, these are luxury goods. I defer to no one in my hardcore environmentalism--but Obama's plan has had a little bit too much input from Al Gore's "green limousine" set, and is putting the green cart before the debt-ridden horse

In fact, this program somehow manages to be neither reinvention nor recovery. Nor is it very thoughtful. Rather, it is a Jackson Pollack approach to social and economic policy. That kind of action painting may have been OK for hip Hamptons artists way back in the 1950s, but in these times it is dangerously blithe. It also risks discrediting everything that progressives should stand for, if we want to see government taken seriously again as an agent of social change. If we continue with this scattershot, favorite-liberal-interest-group approach, creditors like China may soon begin to wonder whether we've become just another Banana Republic--not the chain store, but the political pathology--or an aging superpower that has an acute case of ADHD.

Of course it is easy to criticize. The real test is to come up with a superior, politically feasible alternative. Later on in this series, I'll suggest one--a combination of high-multiplier spending and serious popular debt relief that would command more support, provide a much greater direct stimulus, stem the decline in housing prices and small business closings and placate foreign creditors who are worried about our sanity. It might even permit Obama to finally win a few Republican votes for his program.

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