Tag: economic stimulus

Obama’s Stimulus: A Bit of Pork, a Lot of Opportunism

A study [$] published in the winter edition of Political Science Quarterly considers two possible reasons for why the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) failed to sprinkle Uncle Sam’s magic dust onto those areas of the country that were being hardest hit by the recession. 

Was it because well-positioned politicians were successful in delivering the pork? 

Or was it because the recession created a “window of opportunity” for politicians to quickly spend a bunch of additional money on pet causes, which had the effect of benefitting certain areas of the country? 

I’m going to skip right to the answer: the uneven geographic distribution of stimulus funds had only a little to do with traditional pork barreling and much to do with Obama’s then chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel’s famous quip that “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” 

On the possibility of traditional pork-barreling, the authors found no statistically significant relationship between the distribution of funds and whether a county was represented by a politician serving on a congressional committee relevant to stimulus funding. Nor was a relationship found between funding and counties that were represented by a Democrat in the House or Senate. However, a relationship was found between funding and those counties that overwhelmingly voted for the president: 

There does, however, appear to be a distinct tilt toward counties that were stronger for the Democratic Party in 2008. All else equal, counties at the 90th percentile of Democratic share presidential vote ’08 received between $35 and $36 more per capita in both total funding and infrastructure projects than did counties at the 10th percentile (p ≤ .001)…The effect of presidential politics may be especially relevant for the distribution of ARRA funds because most of the grants, loans, and contracts funded by the stimulus were in discretionary programs overseen by administrative agencies, over which presidents and their political appointees exercise influence. 

On the other hand, the authors found that a county possessing attributes that synched with the policies funded in ARRA were more likely to receive money. For example, a county with a lot of interstate highway mileage made out better than a county that did not. Another example is counties that had a larger share of state and local government workers received a larger share of funds. 

While it’s not surprising that legislation that funds highway infrastructure projects would benefit areas with more highway mileage, let’s remember that the stimulus was sold by many politicians as being necessary to help those with the greatest need. Indeed, as the authors point out, the text of the legislation stated that a main goal was “to assist those most impacted by the recession.” 

The bottom line is that the Obama administration used the economic downturn to spend a bunch of money it otherwise would not have been able to on a stack of its pet policies. In the process, the counties that did the most to put Obama in the White House received a taxpayer-funded thank you in return.  

The ‘Consumer Spending’ Myth

Journalists talk endlessly these days about the need for more consumer spending to revive the economy, and for government programs to juice consumer spending. Economist Steven Horwitz takes on the assumption that spending is the key to economic activity:

One of the most pernicious and widespread economic fallacies is the belief that consumption is the key to a healthy economy.  We hear this idea all the time in the popular press and casual conversation, particularly during economic downturns.  People say things like, “Well, if folks would just start buying things again, the economy would pick up” or “If we could only get more money in the hands of consumers, we’d get out of this recession.”  This belief in the power of consumption is also what has guided much of economic policy in the last couple of years, with its endless stream of stimulus packages.

This belief is an inheritance of misguided Keynesian thinking. Production, not consumption, is the source of wealth.  If we want a healthy economy, we need to create the conditions under which producers can get on with the process of creating wealth for others to consume, and under which households and firms can engage in thesaving necessary to finance that production….

Putting more resources in the hands of consumers through a government stimulus package fails precisely because the wealth so transferred ultimately has to come from producers.  This is obvious when the spending is financed by taxation, but it’s equally true for deficit spending and inflation.  With deficit spending the wealth comes from producers’ purchases of government bonds.  With inflation it comes proportionately from holders of dollars (obtained through acts of production) whose purchasing power is weakened by the excess supply of money.  In neither case does government create wealth. Nor does consumption.  The new ability to consume still originates in prior acts of production.  If we want real stimulus, we need to free up producers by creating a more hospitable environment for production and not penalize the saving that finances them.

Laura Tyson’s Confused Case for a Second Stimulus

I was a bit critical of Laura Tyson’s New York Times article on “Why We Need a Second Stimulus.” Apparently I wasn’t nearly critical enough.

The Nation and National Public Radio are advising President Obama to “stop listening to infrastructure-phobic advisers like Larry Summers and start taking counsel from Laura Tyson, a member of his Economic Recovery Advisory Board who argues that $1 trillion in infrastructure investment is needed over the next five years.”

At The Atlantic, senior editor (and Boston Globe columnist) Joshua Green thinks Laura Tyson’s article “underscored what a loss it is for the Obama administration that it couldn’t manage to find a place for her on its economic team.” Mr. Green can’t imagine why a Berkeley professor who wants to add an extra trillion to federal spending wouldn’t be the ideal budget director.

In the article that so impressed Mr. Green, Tyson wrote, “The primary cause of the [current] labor market crisis is a collapse in private demand… By late 2009, in response to unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus, household and business spending began to recover. But by the second quarter of this year, economic growth had slowed to 1.6 percent.”

Combining “fiscal and monetary stimulus” in a single phrase is a clumsy way to conceal the irrelevance of   “fiscal stimulus” (debt-financed federal spending) to GDP growth in 2009. Fiscal stimulus means the Treasury sells more bonds. Monetary stimulus means the Fed buys more bonds. To discuss those transactions as if they had the same effect is just another mysterious Keynesian incantation.  

Tyson claims there is “too little appreciation for how stimulus spending has helped stabilize the economy and how more of the right kind of government spending could boost job creation and economic growth.” She wants much more spending on unemployment benefits (a paradoxical definition of a jobs program) and on aid to state and local governments (where unemployment rates are relatively low). 

To argue for more borrowing and spending, however, Tyson cannot credit monetary policy for helping the recovery. Because she explicitly advocates much more spending on “unemployment benefits and aid to state governments” (not just “infrastructure”), Tyson has to demonstrate that changes in federal spending (not Fed policy) explain why the economy appeared to be recovering in late 2009 but faltering by the second quarter of 2010. It is not enough to allude to simulations from Mark Zandi’s famously incorrect forecasting model, as the CEA and CBO have done. Tyson needs to show us a fact or two. She didn’t even try. She even got the size of Obama’s stimulus bill wrong, citing last year’s antiquated $787 billion figure that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has revised twice since January.

In reality, the 2009 stimulus bill was mostly about extending unemployment benefits, expanding Medicaid, dispensing small checks (refundable tax credits) and other schemes to rob Peter and pay Paul. Such transfer payments add nothing to GDP; they just discourage work. The increase in federal nondefense purchases (such as ”shovel-ready” projects) contributed only two-tenths of one percent (0.2) to the change in GDP in 2009. That was no larger than in 2008 when the Recovery Act did not exist. And even that trivial sum is merely an accounting gain rather than a net economic gain, because federal borrowing is no free lunch. The reason Keynesian accounting is no substitute for economics is that governments can only spend what Danny DeVito called “OPM” (other peoples’ money). To claim that such spending is a net addition to “aggregate demand” is to ignore those other people — namely, current and future taxpayers.

The timing of Obama’s so-called stimulus spending has been totally inconsistent with Tyson’s description of how the economy supposedly responded in the past and present, and why she expects growth to slow by a percentage point or two next year unless the feds spend more on multi-year jobless benefits and deficit-sharing with the states. In its latest whitewash, the CBO “now estimates that the total impact over the 2009–2019 period will amount to $814 billion. Close to half of that impact is estimated to occur in fiscal year 2010, and about 70 percent of ARRA’s budgetary impact will have been realized by the close of that fiscal year.” With half of the spending in fiscal 2010 and 30 percent in 2011 and beyond, that means just 20 percent of the $814 billion ($163 billion) had been spent by the end of October 2009. Yet it was in late 2009 when Tyson claims the stimulus had the most impact. 

Tyson worries that “by next year, the [fiscal] stimulus will end.”  That’s wrong too. The CBO estimates that 30 percent of the spending ($244 billion) will occur in fiscal 2011 (January to October) and beyond to 2019.

Unfortunately, Ms. Tyson’s reference to the second quarter’s GDP is entirely unrelated to her diagnosis of the problem as being “a collapse in private demand.” GDP does not measure private demand because it subtracts imports. Yet spending on imports is just as much a part of “demand” as is spending on domestic goods and services. Real gross domestic purchases increased at a 4.9 percent annual rate in the second quarter, up from 3.9 percent in the first. Neither figure suggests any paucity of private spending.

The second quarter surge in imports (which largely accounts for the wide gap between domestic purchases and GDP) looks like a statistical fluke. “Real” imports appeared to rise so much mainly because import prices supposedly fell at a 9.5 percent annual rate (which means a 2.38 percent rise in the quarter, multiplied by four to get the annual rate). By contrast, import prices rose at a 14.6 percent annual rate in the first quarter and at a 24.8 percent rate in the fourth quarter of 2009. Those figures say more about the folly of converting smallish price changes into annual rates than they do about the real economy. Besides, imports fell 2.1 percent in July and exports rose 1.8%, so the questionable second quarter trade figures did not indicate a lasting trend.

Tyson did not bother to figure out how large the first stimulus bill was, or when the borrowed loot was spent. She did not bother to look up the negligible contribution of federal spending to recent changes in GDP, and she confused GDP with domestic demand. 

The press kept telling us that Tyson was almost certain to replace Peter Orszag as OMB director, and then to replace Christina Romer as head of the Council of Economic Advisers. Yet such plums keep slipping from her fingers, to the dismay of her fans at The Nation, NPR and The Atlantic. This is rare evidence of good judgment from the Obama White House.

“We’re Talking Bridges…”

On Labor Day, President Obama announced his plan for an additional $50 billion in spending, mostly on transportation.  An area Obama specifically mentioned was more spending for bridges, playing on the widely held perception that America’s bridging are falling apart.  While clearly there are bridges that are greatly in need of repair and represent a threat to passenger safety, what has been the overall trend in bridge quality?  In one word:  improving.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics only about 1 in ten bridges today can be characterized as “structurally deficient”, this is, in need of serious repair.  This may sound high, but it is down from 1 in four back in 1990.  As one can tell from the accompanying chart, the percent of deficient bridges has been on a steady decline over the last two decades.

It is also worth noting that over 80 percent of the deficient bridges in the U.S. are in rural areas, and  subject to much less passenger traffic.  Many of these bridges likely see little, if any, traffic. 

Perhaps more important from the perspective of “economic stimulus” is that additional bridge construction and repair would take years to have any real impact on employment.  Rather than coming up with policies designed with solely political appeal in mind, the President and Congress should focus on broad policies that allow the private sector to determine what investment needs should be addressed.

Making Government Bigger Is Not Stimulus - and It Won’t Create Jobs

This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains how last year’s so-called stimulus was a flop - and also reveals why politicians are pushing for another big-government spending bill.

Interestingly, since last year’s stimulus was such a disaster, the redistributionists in Washington are calling their new proposal a “jobs bill.” But as I say in the video, this is akin to putting perfume on a hog.

For further background, here is a video explaining why Keynesian economics is wrong and another predicting (in advance!) that last year’s stimulus would be a mistake. And just in case anyone actually wants the economy to grow faster, here’s one about policies that actually increase prosperity.

Keep Dreaming, Mr. Vice President

According to The Hill, in a conference call yesterday with the nation’s governors, Vice President Joe Biden said that “In my wildest dreams, I never thought it would work this well.”  The “it” would be the administration’s $787 billion so-called “stimulus” package.

At the same time, USA Today reported:

Nearly $10 billion in stimulus aid to repair the nation’s tattered highways has largely bypassed dozens of metropolitan areas where roads are in the worst shape, a USA TODAY analysis shows… The problem is a byproduct of a stimulus package designed to spend as fast as possible to revive the economy. Many roads are in such bad shape that repairs would take too long and cost too much to qualify for funds, says John Barton, head of engineering for Texas’ Department of Transportation. The result is that counties with the worst roads won’t get much more repair money than counties with better roads. The 74 counties with half of the nation’s bad roads will split $1.9 billion, records show; counties with no major roads in bad shape will split about $1.5 billion.

A few weeks ago I was driving on I-70 somewhere around Washington, PA arra_signand got stuck in a traffic jam over what appeared to be a small bridge maintenance job.  A sign, also funded by taxpayers, proudly declared that the maintenance was made possible by the “stimulus” legislation.  What irritated me more than the traffic jam was the fact that the stretch of I-70 I was on is a notoriously white-knuckle ride.  The pavement is old and the two lanes are squished between cement dividers, leaving little room for error.  A reasonable person might conclude that fixing I-70 would be a priority.  But reasonable and Congress go together like wolves and sheep.  To me it was further evidence of the inefficient, politicized nature of federal infrastructure spending.  (It also brought to mind former pork-barrel congressman Bud Shuster’s lightly traveled I-99 in central PA.)

In a different article USA Today also reported:

The $787 billion economic recovery package also is stimulating growth in the federal government as agencies hire thousands of workers and spend millions of dollars to oversee and implement the package, according to government records and spokesmen… That’s helped fuel the continued growth of the federal government, which increased by more than 25,000 employees, or 1.3%, since December 2008, according to the latest quarterly report. During that time, the ranks of the nation’s unemployed increased by nearly 4 million, Labor Department statistics show.

Apparently for VP Biden, “stimulus” success means inefficient infrastructure spending and more federal employees.

Bob McDonnell: The Modern Republican

This is from the Reagan administration’s deregulatory 1981 energy plan: “All Americans are involved in making energy policy. When individual choices are made with a maximum of personal understanding and a minimum of government restraints, the result is the most appropriate energy policy.”

Many modern Republicans claim devotion to Ronald Reagan’s ideas, but they often seem to forget about the “minimum of government” thing. The following points are from Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell’s “More Energy, More Jobs” plan:

  • “McDonnell was the chief sponsor of legislation creating the Virginia Hydrogen Energy Plan.”
  • “McDonnell also supported grant programs for solar photovoltaic manufacturing, tax exemptions for solar energy and recycling property, and tax credits for solar energy equipment.”
  • “In order to protect Virginia’s citizens from the skyrocketing wholesale prices of electricity seen in other states, McDonnell brought together all the necessary stake holders to re-regulate electricity in Virginia.”
  • “Currently, Virginia is the second largest importer of electricity behind California.  This is unacceptable.”
  • “Bob McDonnell will establish Virginia as a Green Jobs Zone to incentivize companies to create quality green jobs. Qualified businesses would be eligible to receive an income tax credit equal to $500 per position created per year for the first five years.”
  • “The Virginia Alternative Fuels Revolving Fund was established to assist local governments that convert to alternative fuel systems … Bob McDonnell will expand the purpose of this fund to include infrastructure such as refueling stations, provide seed money and aggressively pursue additional grants.”
  • “Bob McDonnell will make Southwest and Southside Virginia the nation’s hub for traditional and alternative energy research and development…To assist with the attraction, building and operation of major energy facilities in Southside and Southwest Virginia, we will also support the establishment of the Center for Energy.”
  • “To help Virginia universities gain access to federal stimulus money, as Governor, Bob McDonnell will establish the Virginia Universities Clean Energy Development and Economic Stimulus Foundation.”
  • “As Governor, Bob McDonnell will leverage stimulus funding to incentivize individuals and businesses to conduct energy audits and encourage public private partnerships between small businesses and government.”

It’s true that McDonnell’s plan has some free market elements, and also that Ronald Reagan supported some wasteful energy boondoggles. However, the degree to which the modern Republican wants to micromanage and manipulate the energy industry is remarkable. McDonnell is almost setting out a Soviet five-year plan for a substantial part of the Virginia economy. For goodness sakes, he wants to treat Virginia like a separate country and try to fix the supposed problem that it is “importing” too much energy from other states!

It’s not just energy. Look at the top-down central planning ideas that McDonnell has for “creating jobs”:

  • “Expanding use of the Governor’s Opportunity Fund by roughly doubling the funding available and broadening Fund rules to allow companies that generate additional state and local tax revenue to qualify.”
  • “Appointing Lieutenant Governor Bolling to serve as “Virginia’s Chief Job Creation Officer” in the McDonnell/Bolling Administration.”
  • “Designating one Deputy Secretary of Commerce to Focus Solely on Rural Economic Development.”
  • “Providing a $1,000 tax credit per job to businesses that create 50 new jobs, or 25 new jobs in economically distressed areas.”
  • “Double the funding for the Virginia Tourism Corporation. Currently Virginia trails 14 states including West Virginia and Tennessee in tourism funding.”
  • “Increase funding for the Governor’s Motion Picture Fund by $2 million.”
  • “Providing a $1,000 tax credit per job to businesses that create 50 new jobs, or 25 new jobs in economically distressed areas.”

Again, McDonnell mixes some pro-market proposals in with these Big Government interventions. And his opponent, Creigh Deeds, is promoting his own interventionist schemes, many very similar to McDonnell’s.

In 1980, the difference between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on economic policy was clear. But today, we seem to have arrived at a point where it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference in economic platforms between a self-proclaimed conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat.