* FEBRUARY 6, 2009, 10:35 P.M. ET
The Stimulus Tragedy
Obama bets that we can spend our way to prosperity.
President Obama has started to play the "catastrophe" card to sell his economic stimulus plan, using yesterday's terrible January jobs report to predict doom unless Congress acts. No doubt he'll get his way, but the tragedy of this first great effort of the Obama Presidency is what a lost opportunity it is.
Everyone agrees that some kind of fiscal stimulus might help the economy, and that running budget deficits is appropriate in a recession. The stage was thus set for the popular President to forge a bipartisan consensus that combined ideas from both parties. A major cut in the corporate tax favored by Republicans could have been added to Democratic public works spending for a quick political triumph that might have done at least some economic good.
Instead, Mr. Obama chose to let House Democrats write the bill, and they did what comes naturally: They cleaned out their intellectual cupboards and wrote a bill that is 90% social policy, and 10% economic policy. (See here for a case study.) It is designed to support incomes with transfer payments, rather than grow incomes through job creation.
This is the reason the bill has run into political trouble, despite a new President with 65% job approval. The 11 Democrats who opposed it in the House didn't do so because they want to hand Mr. Obama a defeat. The same is true of the Senate moderates of both parties working to trim their $900 billion version. They've acted because they can't justify a vote for so much spending for so little economic effect. You know a piece of legislation is in trouble when even its authors begin to deny paternity, as economist Martin Feldstein has recently done.
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Speaking to a House Democratic retreat on Thursday night, Mr. Obama took on those critics. "So then you get the argument, well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill. What do you think a stimulus is? (Laughter and applause.) That's the whole point. No, seriously. (Laughter.) That's the point. (Applause.)"
So there it is: Mr. Obama is now endorsing a sort of reductionist Keynesianism that argues that any government spending is an economic stimulus. This is so manifestly false that we doubt Mr. Obama really believes it. He has to know that it matters what the government spends the money on, as well as how it is financed. A dollar doled out in jobless benefits may well be spent by the worker who receives it. That $1 of spending will count as economic activity and add to GDP.
But that same dollar can't be conjured out of thin air. The government has to take that dollar away from someone else -- either in higher taxes, or by issuing new debt in the form of a bond. The person who is taxed or buys the bond will have $1 less to spend. If the beneficiary of that $1 spends it on something less productive than the taxed American or the lender would have, then the net impact on growth will be negative.
Some Democrats claim these transfer payments are stimulating because they go mainly to poor people, who immediately spend the money. Tax cuts for business or for incomes across the board won't work, they add, because those tax cuts go disproportionately to "the rich," who will save the money. But a saved $1 doesn't vanish from the economy, unless it is stuffed into a mattress. It enters the financial system, where it is lent to others; or it is invested in the stock market as capital for businesses; or it is invested in entirely new businesses, which are the real drivers of job creation and prosperity.
At the current moment, amid a capital strike, the latter is the kind of fiscal stimulus we really need. Yet there is virtually none of it in the bills now moving through Congress. Senate moderates may succeed in cutting $100 billion or so in spending from the bill, which is political window dressing. Even they aren't talking about adding the kind of tax cuts that would really help the economy now.
We should add how different this is from the 1980s or even the 1960s. Democrats added business tax cuts to the Reagan package of 1981, while Jack Kennedy's chief economist (Walter Heller) promoted marginal rate tax cuts on stimulus grounds in the 1960s. Yet Mr. Obama, on Thursday, dismissed any such tax cuts as "the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped to create this crisis." That's rhetoric for a campaign, not for a President hoping to rally bipartisan support.
The biggest gamble with this stimulus is what it means if the economy doesn't recover. Monetary policy is already as stimulative as it can safely get, and the Obama Administration is set to announce its big financial fix on Monday. Stocks rallied Friday on expectations of the latter, despite the job loss report, with big bank stocks leading the way. If done right, this will help reduce risk aversion and gradually restore financial confidence.
We hope it does, because the size and waste of the stimulus means we won't have much ammunition left. The spending will take the U.S. budget deficit up to some 12% of GDP, about double the peak of the 1980s and into uncharted territory. The tragedy of the Obama stimulus is that we are getting so little for all that money.
So far I'm not happy with the stimulus bill, and I'm annoyed that Obama played Bush's trump card, the fear card, and told the country the Senators will cause a catastrophe if they don't rush this bill to his desk.