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800 Billion Reasons To Be Worried

The Senate stimulus bill should only stimulate taxpayer anger

Veronique de Rugy
February 10, 2009

How bad is the stimulus bill just passed by the Senate? Well, at least as bad as the one passed last week by the House of Representatives, but probably not as bad as the final bill that will land on President Barack Obama's desk, possibly as soon as the end of this week.

Don't take my word for it. In a report to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) laid out in plain English—well, economic language—that the Senate bill would eventually cause not a stimulus but a recession in "the longer run." As CBO's director Douglas W. Elmendorf wrote on February 4:

At your request, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has conducted an analysis of the macroeconomic impact of the Inouye-Baucus amendment in the nature of a substitute to H.R. 1 [the House stimulus bill]. CBO estimates that this Senate legislation would raise output and lower unemployment for several years, with effects broadly similar to those of H.R. 1 as introduced. In the longer run, the legislation would result in a slight decrease in gross domestic product (GDP) compared with CBO’s baseline economic forecast.

On the CBO's The Director’s Blog, Elmendorf explains why the Senate legislation would eventually reduce economic output: “The principal channel for this effect is that the legislation would result in an increase in government debt. To the extent that people hold their wealth in the form of government bonds rather than in a form that can be used to finance private investment, the increased government debt would tend to 'crowd out' private investment—thus reducing the stock of private capital and the long-term potential output of the economy.”

The CBO's latest projection for fiscal year 2009's deficit is that it will reach $1.2 trillion (that’s eleven zeros after the 2) before factoring in any stimulus spending or war spending. That’s 8.3 percent of GDP and far higher than any deficit under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s (when deficits reached 6 percent of GDP). In fact, you have to go back to World War II to find deficits higher than the projections for FY 2009.

Truly massive deficits won't surprise anyone who has looked at the Senate version of the stimulus bill. Much has been made over the "compromises" and negotiations behind the Senate finally arriving at something that garnered enough support for passage. Here are three large categories of expenditures where senators managed to sort out their differences and find a compromise that they can all live with. If only things were so simple for us taxpayers.

1. Billions of dollars in spending exclusively devoted to benefit federal employees.

That spending was added to an earlier version of the bill, which also benefited federal employees by splurging on things such as the following:

2. Wasteful spending that is not directly targeted at federal employees:

Arguably the best item in the Senate bill is a $1,500 tax credit to anyone that purchases “neighborhood electric vehicles”—also known as golf carts. The total estimated cost of that giveback is $300 million. Purchasers of motorcycles and three-wheelers shouldn't despair, however, as there are benefits available for them, too.

And then there are these:

3. Tax cuts and tax breaks that don't deliver anything close to real reform.

The Senate bill supposedly wooed a few recalcitrant Republicans by trimming spending (see above) and throwing in simple, clear-cut, and effective tax cuts. The tax portions of the Senate stimulus bill do contain approximately 40 separate tax-related provisions aimed at boosting the economy, amounting to an estimated $385.3 billion in cuts and government give-backs.

The Senate might have done something straightforward, like cutting the corporate income tax or cutting the payroll tax that all workers pay. Instead, most of the provisions are tax credits, many of which are refundable. In other words, individuals and businesses need to pay their taxes up front and then will get money back from the government. These sorts of programs, aimed incentivizing investment, are better understood as spending programs disguised as “tax cuts.”

Among the various tax provisions are programs such as the following:

There are many more bad policies and spending decisions in the Senate stimulus bill, but even a cursory glance at the parts outlined above give a good sense of the overall legislation—and what is likely to be signed into law by President Obama.

And here is one more thing to consider: There is absolutely no evidence that any stimulus package in the past 80 years has goosed economic activity—not FDR’s during the Great Depression, not Japan’s during the 1990s, and not George W. Bush’s in 2001 and 2008. If anything, the economic evidence suggests that such spending packages actually intensified and prolonged misery.

Instead of rushing through legislation that will likely have no short-term effect on the economy, is guaranteed to have negative long term ones, and that serves the traditional interest groups that politicians are always busy catering to, the Senate should have cut spending like Ireland is now doing and cut marginal tax rates across the board. That would not only have stimulated the economy, it would have been fiscally responsible considering the massive entitlement crisis that is coming our way. But such legislation, alas, will have to wait for another day. Or another crisis.

Veronique de Rugy is a Reason columnist and a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Veronique de Rugy is Senior Research Fellow


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