Mired in excruciating negotiations over the budget and the debt ceiling, President Barack Obama might reflect that things didn't have to turn out this way. The impasse grows mainly out of one major decision he made early on: pushing through a giant stimulus.
When he took office in January 2009, this was his first priority. The following month, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with a price tag eventually put at $862 billion.
It was, he said at the time, the most sweeping economic recovery package in our history," and would "create or save three and a half million jobs over the next two years."
The president was right about the first claim. As a share of gross domestic output, it was the largest fiscal stimulus program ever tried in this country. But the second claim doesn't stand up so well. Today, total nonfarm employment is down by more than a million jobs.
What Obama didn't foresee is that his program would spark a populist backlash and give rise to the tea party. Where would Michele Bachmann be if the stimulus had never been enacted—or if it had been a brilliant success?
To say it has not been is to understate the obvious. The administration says the results look meager because the economy was weaker than anyone realized. Maybe so, but fiscal policy is a clumsy and uncertain tool for stimulating growth, which the past two years have not vindicated.
The package had three main components: tax cuts, aid to state governments, and spending on infrastructure projects. Tax cuts would induce consumers to buy stuff. State aid would prop up spending by keeping government workers employed. Infrastructure outlay would generate hiring to build roads, bridges, and other public works.
That was the alluring theory, which vaporized on contact with reality. The evidence amassed so far by economists indicates that the stimulus has come up empty in every possible way.
Consider the tax cuts. Wage-earners saw their take-home pay rise as the IRS reduced withholding. But as with past rebates and one-time tax cuts, consumers proved reluctant to perform their assigned role.
Claudia Sahm of the Federal Reserve Board and Joel Slemrod and Matthew Shapiro of the University of Michigan found that only 13 percent of households indicated they would spend most of the windfall. The rest said they preferred to put it in the bank or pay off debts—neither of which boosts the sale of goods and services.
This puny yield was even worse than that of the 2008 tax rebate devised by President George W. Bush. Neither attempt, the study reported, "was very effective in stimulating spending in the near term."
The idea behind channeling money to state governments is that it would reduce the paring of government payrolls, thus preserving the spending power of public employees. But the plan went awry, according to a paper by Dartmouth College economists James Feyrer and Bruce Sacerdote published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
"Transfers to the states to support education and law enforcement appear to have little effect," they concluded. Most likely, they said, states used the money to avoid raising taxes or borrowing money.
That's right: The federal government took out loans that it will have to cover with future tax increases ... so states don't have to. It's like paying your Visa bill with your MasterCard.
The public works component could have been called public non-works. It sounds easy for Washington to pay contractors to embark on "shovel-ready projects" that needed only money to get started. The administration somehow forgot that even when the need is urgent, the government moves at the speed of a glacier.
John Cogan and John Taylor, affiliated with Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, reported earlier this year that out of that $862 billion, a microscopic $4 billion has been used to finance infrastructure. Even Obama has been chagrined.
"There's no such thing as shovel-ready projects," he complained last year.
Even if jobs were somehow created or saved by this ambitious effort, they came at a prohibitive price. Feyrer and Sacerdote say the costs may have been as high as $400,000 per job.
Based on all this evidence, we don't really know whether the federal government can use fiscal policy to engineer a recovery. We do know it can go broke trying.
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