“Stimulus plan” still needs more stimulus

By John Burke | Related entries in Economic recovery, Fiscal stimulus, House, Obama, Senate

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I strongly support a massive fiscal stimulus to restore an atmosphere of confidence, avert a continued, severe downward spiral, and give the economy a big enough jolt to jump start a recovery.

But the $819 billion plan (really a $1.2 trillion plan including interest on the debt) adopted by the House of Representatives yesterday isn’t it. A large part of that plan dresses up a Christmas tree of programs sought by Congressional Democrats as “economic stimulus.” I like a lot of these programs and might well support them on their own merits; but many are not “stimulus.”

The problem with cramming everything you’d like to do into a single bill under the pretense that it’s “stimulus” is this: with a trillion dollar federal deficit already on the books, $700 billion almost out the door to shore up the financial system (and according to recent reports, much more dough still needed on that front), we may only have one shot at a really effective stimulus program. So we need to be as sure as we possibly can that it will work.

As we listen to pols, pundits, economists, and self-appointed analysts, we should keep in mind that no one has a very good idea of how to make a comprehensive counter-cyclical fiscal policy work. No one. We haven’t really done it before! Consequently, the arguments about it are largely theoretical debates between competing groups of academics or, as in the present instance, a confused jumble of claims in which all parties insist their favored programs are more stimulating than the other guy’s.

As a practical matter in recent decades, monetary policy won out as the principal tool of decision makers, Democrats and Republicans, because it could be wielded in a carefully calibrated and timed fashion. The knock against fiscal policy was that by the time we knew the economy was headed down, Congress got its act together and did something, and that something bore fruit, it would probably be too late. The economy would already be headed back up, and the fiscal stimulus would hit just in time to drive inflation.

Well, guess what? That appears to be exactly what’s happening today.

A new report by the Congressional Budget office projects that about 65% of the total funds in the House bill, spending and tax cuts, will be out the door by September 30, 2010, or within 19 months. The Obama Administration contends that 75% will be spent by that time. (See the graph above for the year-by-year projection of federal deficit spending.)

This is really a distinction without much of a difference. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average length of recessions in the U.S. over the past 100 years has been 13 months, with recent recessions shorter. The last prolonged and deep recession was that of 1980-82, which lasted two years. The current recession is already in its 13th month. Most analysts expect it to continue through the first half of 2009, after which there are divergent views on the speed or length of the recovery.

Of course, anyone who actually knows how long or deep it will be is bound to get rich. Everyone is guessing, so it’s critical to assume it will be worse, not better, to ensure that we stimulate enough.

The House plan, as it stands, simply does not do that — not because it’s not big enough, but because it dribbles out too much of the money too slowly and fails to put enough money where it will have the greatest impact. In that bar graph, we should see the tallest bar for 2009, so we deliver a big jolt this spring, summer and fall, not next year. The 2010 bar should still be up there, with the larger share out during the first half. After 2010

There is just no excuse for planning to spend $200 billion in those out years and calling it “stimulus.” (If the programs are sound, given that the Democrats have the votes they need to approve anything, those expenditures can be taken up separately and passed anyway.)

There are many ways to ensure that the stimulus impact is felt in 2009 and, at the latest, 2010 — but accelerating the spending side of proposals in the House bill may not be one of them. The CBO has told Congress that speeding up outlays for infrastructure projects and the like would “not be easy” because such projects take time, often more time than thought at the outset.

That advice was contained in a letter to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Conrad (Dem-N.D.). Conrad and other Democrats in the Senate are looking closely at ways to make sure the stimulus is really stimulating. As Sen. Byron Dorgan (Dem-N.D.) put it, “We’re not interested in promoting employment five years from now. We’re interested in promoting employment five months from now.”

One proposal that I think has merit is to slash the roughly 13% payroll tax for employees and employers. As of the next paycheck, that would put money into the hands of workers who would spend it and businesses who would invest it. The program could be designed to sunset after 10 or 12 months or more, unless renewed by Congress.

Harvard economist Martin Feldstein has some interesting ideas for directing stimulus to sectors of the economy where a boost is most needed. For example, he suggests tax incentives for consumers to spend on big ticket items, such as a temporary tax credit to purchase a car or make home improvements. I’d go a step further with that concept and consider a tax credit — also temporary — against the purchase of a primary residence to stimulate home building and help stabilize housing prices.

Alas, there already may be too much water under the bridge to expect that the House-approved package can be fundamentally altered.

Hopefully, the Senate will make improvements and the final bill signed by President Obama will be more front-loaded and more on target.

I strongly suspect that Obama and his economic team clearly understand the importance of speed and targeting but had limited control of the bill developed by the House Majority. Obama is also keenly aware of the fact that the success of his Presidency will be closely tied to success in stimulating an economic recovery.

Let’s hope the Senate will give him a bill that comes closer to what he and the country need.

(Visit me at The Purple Center)


This entry was posted on Friday, January 30th, 2009 and is filed under Economic recovery, Fiscal stimulus, House, Obama, Senate. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to ““Stimulus plan” still needs more stimulus”

  1. Mike Says:

    I agree almost 100%.

    When Obama said that his goal was 75% of the spending in the first 18 months, I was not impressed. 25% of a ton of money is still a ton of money. I believe the Democrats are putting stuff in this bill just to get them through without much debate. As you said, some of it might be worth it, but why not debate it on it’s own merits instead of pushing it through as part of a stimulus package?

    The one issue I might disagree with you is tax credits for new home purchases. It seems to me that making buying homes artificially easy is part of what got us into this mess. On the other hand, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to soften the fall a little, so I’m torn on that one.

  2. gljunket Says:

    And this is a surprise???? When you start passing out blank checks???? This country has gone berserk!!!! And you can forget about “governing from the Center!”

  3. kranky kritter Says:

    As we listen to pols, pundits, economists, and self-appointed analysts, we should keep in mind that no one has a very good idea of how to make a comprehensive counter-cyclical fiscal policy work. No one. We haven’t really done it before!

    I’m drawn to wonder what the real reason is for why this is so. And I think it’s because the government really just doesn’t have the power to tell people to feel more optimistic than the circumstances in front of them warrant.

    We’ve had a very painful collapse of a real estate bubble financed by easy credit, and it has led to cascading effects. Other investments premised on the bubble have collapsed. And individual economic behavior predicated on these trends that have now collapsed? No longer feasible. Like taking out home equity loans to finance household deficit spending. Like using a home equity line of credit to buy stock. Never smart, but looking especiallly dumb now.

    Volatility is a huge enemy right now, and that volatility is a manifestation of the fact that people don’t know what to think, or how much faith to have. This huge stimulus package is an attempt to get people to think things will be OK, but what it can’t actually do is provide stability. Only we can do that. Collectively. We will all have to go through more economic pain until a new stable sense of valuation is established. For all kinds of stuff.

    Current circumstances are quite similar to the prisoner’s dilemma. Stability and success will come through individual actions that express faith. But the negative consequences of such action will be extremely high if that faith is unfounded. So fear leads folks to take pessimistic actions that serve individual self-interest but are bad for us collectively.

    Do you take out a mortgage and buy a house? or do you liquidate your investments and accounts and buy gold and batten down the hatches? It’s a problem.

  4. ExiledIndependent Says:

    The affordability of a home should be based on the buyer’s ability to pay the mortgage payment. This requires predictability. So, there should be some fairly significant credit restrictions on ARMs. Less predictability equals more risk.

    And in terms of a government mandated cram-down clause, instead of allowing a judge to force a bank to lose money on a loan, the individual should be able to petition the government for a housing grant or low/zero interest loan that would have the net result of lowering a monthly payment. Individual can’t make ends meet, asks the government for money, government agrees, mechanism to give money from government to bank, bank lowers monthly bill. It adds a nice layer of bureaucracy for the left (government as Dad, deciding whether or not to give Junior any more allowance), and assuages the right’s fear of the government meddling any more with the financial markets.

    At any rate, there should be at least 30 days of analysis, modeling, review, and revision on this thing. Trying to get it passed artificially quickly will result in the same fiasco that Bush led last year (and agreed to by McCain and Obama).

    And if the pork stays in, will Obama have the cajones to veto it?

  5. Brian in GA Says:

    Make no mistake guys, this stimulus plan is only designed to stimulate a voting block and securing votes for decades to come. You watch as the net tax decreases…what the rest of us call welfare checks…..makes their way into the system. You think this is a one time thing? Foggetabout it. This gravy train is full steam ahead to move roughly 57% of the populace away from paying any kind of income tax, thereby fullfilling the old saying:

    A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasure. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most money from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s great civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through the following sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependency, from dependency back to bondage.” Author unverified

  6. Mark Kemp Says:

    census on April 1, 2000, 281,421,906 Americans..
    that’s 281 million americans..

    75 billion vs. 281 million.. hummm

    I can save the country and tax payers alot of money with my stimulus plan.

    how about every person in america recieves a million dollars.. my plan calls for the spending of less than 350 million dollars.. I bet we would all be able to make our house payment and would take on a new car payment.. maybe go to the store and buy somthing.. call me crazy..

    If I recieve another 1200.00 dollar check.. I’ll make sure I pay the gas company the back money I owe them..that will get the ol’ econemy up and running again.!

    ANOTHER 75bil… dollars.. where the hell is it going.. ?
    It’s sure as hell not going to the people who paid it in the first damn place!

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