The stimulus package had two components, new spending and tax cuts. Everybody knew that the spending component would take time to put into place, six months or more for a lot of the infrastructure projects, and that meant that we needed something to increase demand and provide a bridge until the new spending comes online.
Enter the tax cuts that the GOP insisted upon, tax cuts that were a larger part of the stimulus package than I thought justified. These cuts were to come online immediately and stimulate demand until the spending could begin taking up some of the slack later in the year. I would have preferred targeted, non-infrastructure spending that could have been put in place almost as fast as the tax cuts (particularly those that simply require making existing programs more generous), but that type of spending was considered wasteful because it didn’t add to our long-run capacity for growth and hence had little chance of being part of the stimulus package.
The problem was partly bad luck. A crisis hit and we had the bad luck of having an administration that opposed active intervention and though there was a bit of a stimulus attempt through a one time tax rebate, a strategy theory predicts won’t do much to help, the real action in terms of stimulating the economy was left to the new administration. So nothing was done, nothing could have been done until the new administration took over, and given the insistence that any new spending be on infrastructure projects with clear benefits, tax cuts were the main hope for an immediate effect.
So if the policy has failed at this point, it is not the spending component since, fully consistent with predictions when it was enacted, it was going to be months before it could be of any help. What failed is the GOP’s insistence that tax cuts be used to provide an immediate boost to the economy. Increasing food stamps, unemployment compensation, payments to help states with declining revenues and increasing demands for social services, payments to help unemployed workers maintain health care, digging (needed) holes, there were many, many other ways to provide more immediate relief and stimulate the economy at the same time, but no, it had to be tax cuts or nothing.
Finally, I want to note that what we maximize matters. For example, we can maximize GDP growth over the next ten or twenty years, or we can maximize employment over the next few months. Which we choose to maximize has a big effect on the policies we put in place. If we use the stimulus money to maximize GDP and growth – which is essentially what we did – that will have a much slower effect on employment than if we maximize employment directly. The efficiency argument always leads you to maximize output, and efficiency prevailed in the structure of the current package, but I think an argument can also be made that maximizing employment provides social benefits that are just as large, or larger.
Just noticed this, which makes a surprisingly similar point:
A Message to President Obama: Stop Priming the Pump, Hire the Unemployed, by Pavlina R. Tcherneva: Many have called President Obama’s stimulus plan a return to Keynesian policy. Some of us who like reading Keynes professionally or for leisure have already been scratching our heads. I have wondered in particular whether the plan isn’t set up to work in a manner completely backwards from what Keynes himself had in mind when he advocated economic stabilization by government.
There are two things to remember about Keynes’s fiscal policy proposals: 1) government spending was always linked to the goal of full employment… and 2) to achieve macro-stability and full employment, the government had to employ the unemployed directly into public works.
By contrast, most modern economists believe that 1) there is some natural level of unemployment that includes the structurally unemployed, which governments cannot generally tackle, and that 2) public employment is an inefficient use of public resources…