Political Traps for Keynesians

In early 2009 Congress and the president passed an $800 billion economic stimulus (tax cut and government spending) package. A number of analysts argued at the time that given the context — very severe downturn, interest rates already near zero, steep drop in home and stock asset values — the package was too small. Though the stimulus has helped (CBO, Blinder and Zandi), the pessimists appear to have been right: the economic recovery is languishing.

It looks very unlikely that there will be a second stimulus. This isn’t surprising. An initial stimulus that is insufficiently large risks creating (at least) three kinds of political trap:

1. Debt worry. From a post I wrote in January 2009:

Our experience in the 1930s and Japan’s in the 1990s … teach that if early stimulus efforts are too modest, they create a political trap: concern about the government debt produced by the earlier stimulus packages grows, which heightens opposition to further stimulus.

2. Perception that insufficient = ineffective. Here’s Paul Krugman in March of 2009:

Sooner or later the administration will realize that more must be done. But when it comes back for more money, will Congress go along?

Here’s the picture that scares me: It’s September 2009, the unemployment rate has passed 9 percent, and despite the early round of stimulus spending it’s still headed up. Mr. Obama finally concedes that a bigger stimulus is needed.

But he can’t get his new plan through Congress because approval for his economic policies has plummeted, partly because his policies are seen to have failed…. And as a result, the recession rages on, unchecked.

3. The party-in-power’s need for an optimistic message in election season. Mark Thoma:

The administration joined in pushing the “we are poised for recovery” line because it seemed like good politics and good economics to try to create a sense of optimism. When the economy did start to recover, they could build upon this story of how the stimulus package saved the day.

But what if the economy, and employment in particular, didn’t start to recover before the election, what then? The administration suddenly finds itself in a predicament. There’s not enough time before the election to actually implement a new stimulus program and expect to see results, so they are stuck with the economy they have, an economy they promised would be boosted by the stimulus programs (…).

So the administration has little choice but to argue that the stimulus programs that it put into place have set the stage for the economy to recover, and, in fact, that recovery is already underway.

About Lane Kenworthy 36 Articles

Affiliation: University of Arizona

Lane Kenworthy is a Professor of Sociology and Political Science University of Arizona.

He studies the causes and consequences of poverty, inequality, mobility, employment, economic growth, and social policy in the United States and other affluent countries.

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