Tag: stimulus

The Biggest Check Ever Signed

The Obama Administration has banked a lot of political capital on the economic “stimulus” package signed into law today, and is hailing the measure as a sound-minded reaction to a dreary economic climate.  In truth, many of the programs in the bill are not only wasteful and inefficient, but have the potential to do some real long-term harm to U.S. policy.

Among them:

The economic stimulus bill is merely a nearsighted return to government spending policies which have been discredited over and over again [PDF].

For more on the package, check out Cato’s Fiscal Reality page.

Looking Back: Cato Scholars Critical of Bush’s Big Government Policies

In selling his big-spending ideas for reviving the U.S. economy, President Obama has chastised “the same policies that, for the last eight years, doubled our national debt, and threw our economy into a tail spin.”

We couldn’t agree more with the president.

Unfortunately, he seems unaware that exploding the size of government, as he is proposing to do with this stimulus package, is a remarkably Bush-esque ideal.

While Bush was in office, scholars at the Cato Institute were critical of his big government policies. In a new section on cato.org/fiscalreality, you can find some of our research and commentary throughout the Bush years, including:

Stimulus Agreement Means Lower Long-Run Growth

News reports indicate there is some sort of final deal on the so-called stimulus. Some of the politicians are acting as if this massive spending bill is “fiscally responsible” merely because the total amount of money is fractionally smaller than the House and Senate proposals. Ironically, as Veronique de Rugy explains for reason.com, even the Congressional Budget Office, which relies on a deeply-flawed Keynesian economic model, is warning that bigger government will hurt the economy’s long-run performance.

In a report to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) writes in plain English—well, economic language—that the Senate bill would eventually cause not a stimulus but a recession in “the longer run.” …On the CBO’s The Director’s Blog, Elmendorf explains why the Senate legislation would eventually reduce economic output:

The principal channel for this effect is that the legislation would result in an increase in government debt. To the extent that people hold their wealth in the form of government bonds rather than in a form that can be used to finance private investment, the increased government debt would tend to ‘crowd out’ private investment—thus reducing the stock of private capital and the long-term potential output of the economy.

The Senate might have done something straightforward, like cutting the corporate income tax or cutting the payroll tax that all workers pay. Instead, most of the provisions are tax credits, many of which are refundable. In other words, individuals and businesses need to pay their taxes up front and then will get money back from the government. These sorts of programs, aimed incentivizing investment, are better understood as spending programs disguised as “tax cuts.”

And here is one more thing to consider: There is absolutely no evidence that any stimulus package in the past 80 years has goosed economic activity—not FDR’s during the Great Depression, not Japan’s during the 1990s, and not George W. Bush’s in 2001 and 2008. If anything, the economic evidence suggests that such spending packages actually intensified and prolonged misery.

The Congressional Budget Office is right, albeit for reasons other than the ones generated by its garbage-in-garbage-out model. Bigger government hurts economic efficiency by diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy, and it does not matter whether government spending is financed by taxes or borrowing.

Will Stimulus Become a $3 Trillion Nightmare?

A huge threat from the $800 billion stimulus plan in front of Congress this week is that much of the spending may morph into a permanent expansion of government. If the bill is signed into law, lobbyists will immediately start pressing for the long-term extension of all the new spending on health care, transportation, education and other items.

Let’s look at the Senate bill to illustrate the fiscal impact of such a nightmare scenario. The CBO finds that the Senate bill would increase outlays by $546 billion and cut taxes $292 billion over fiscal years 2009-2019.

Figure 1 shows CBO’s assumed pattern of spending under the bill. Since we are already part way through 2009, outlays peak in 2010 at $206 billion and taper off after that. Note that 41 percent of total spending occurs after 2010 because federal and state agencies have limits on how fast they can spend the huge pile of cash. (Thus 41 percent of spending in the bill is certainly not short-term “stimulus” even if you believe in Keynesian theory).

What if special interest groups successfully lobby to extend all the new benefits and subsidies? One possibility would be that the 2010 funding level of $206 billion is extended permanently, as shown in Figure 2. Rather than the stimulus bill costing $546 billion through 2019, it would trigger spending totaling $2.2 trillion over the period.

In sum, here are the budget effects through 2019 of the stimulus nightmare scenario:

- Temporary tax cuts in the Senate bill: $292 billion

- Spending continued permanently at the 2010 level: $2.2 trillion

- Rough guess at the additional federal interest costs: $500 billion

- Total increase in federal debt under nightmare scenario: $3 trillion

Extending the (mainly useless) tax cuts in the stimulus package would make deficits even larger. And, of course, all this increase in debt would come on top of the debt piling up from financial industry bailouts and regular budget spending. It’s madness.

Obama Truth Check

President Obama may have preempted the first hour of prime time Monday night, but he certainly did not fail to entertain with several pronouncements that require suspension of disbelief.

Here are four Obama statements that deserve closer scrutiny:

1.      “[I]f you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of. We saw this happen in Japan in the 1990s, where they did not act boldly and swiftly enough…”

The fact is that numerous presidents, including Obama’s immediate predecessor, have used desperation and fear to sell some of the truly awful policies to come out of the U.S. government in the last 50 years – the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the Iraq War resolution, to name two.

2.      “What it does not contain, however, is a single pet project, not a single earmark, and it has been stripped of the projects members of both parties found most objectionable.”

This one severely strains credulity.  The president is right about one thing: many of the bill’s projects are online for all to see.  But could any reasonable person agree that these projects are stimulative and not aimed at special political interests?

3.      “Most economists, almost unanimously, recognize that…when you have the kind of problem we have right now…that government is an important element of introducing some additional demand into the economy.”

We’ve been over this, Mr. President.  The truth is that a huge and still-growing number of respected economists think that a massive government spending effort in our present circumstances is wasteful and foolhardy.

4.      “What I won’t do is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place…”

OK, so we actually agree with the president on that one.  But then why is he bound and determined to repeat the reckless spending habits of George W. Bush?  We thought the November campaign was all about “change.”

Show Your Opposition to the Stimulus Plan

The Cato ad showing that there is no consensus among economists about the stimulus plan is still running in print and online publications nationwide. To spread the word even further, we’ve created a special widget that you can post on your blog or website.

We’re calling on all bloggers who agree that lessening the burden of government is the best way to boost economic growth to post the widget on your site.

It’s easy: Grab the code on Cato.org/fiscalreality by clicking “Spread the word.”  Post it on your blog and let readers know where you stand on stimulus.


Don’t Call It “Stimulus”

David Friedman raises a very good point:

A well chosen name wins an argument by assuming its conclusion. Label cash subsidies to foreign government as “foreign aid” and who can be so hard hearted as to oppose them? Call subsidies to the public schools “aid to education” and you neatly skip over the question of whether additional spending in the public school system results in more education.

And “economic stimulus” is a classic example.

Everyone—including Obama, back when he was running for President—is against deficit spending. Relabel it “stimulus” and everyone is for it. The label neatly evades the question of whether having the government borrow money and spend it is actually a way of getting out of a recession—a claim for which evidence is distinctly thin. It is stimulus, so obviously it must stimulate.

So what should we call it? President Obama’s spending proposal? The deficit-spending package? I think we’d have trouble getting the media to call it the Big Boondoggle. Maybe the government bailout, following the Wall Street bailout and the auto bailout?

Alas, we’re probably stuck debating the “stimulus.” But that means the battle was half lost before it began.