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Money illusion on the left

In his weekly radio address yesterday President Obama issued the following piece of shameless self-promotion about the results of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009:

“The Recovery Act wasn’t designed to restore the economy to full health on its own, but to provide the boost necessary to stop the free fall. It was designed to spur demand and get people spending again and cushion those who had borne the brunt of the crisis. And it was designed to save jobs and create new ones. In a little over one hundred days, this Recovery Act has worked as intended.”

But, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Edward Lazear, offered a different and, in my opinion, more accurate take on the economic stimulus in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier in the week.

“By June 26, about $56 billion was spent on the stimulus . . . A large proportion of that actually reflects mere transfers from the federal government to state governments, so the amount that has gotten into the economy is significantly lower. . . But even if we call all of the $56 billion spending, it’s still not enough to make a meaningful impact. By this point of the year in 2008, the Bush administration’s tax-rebates got out about $80 billion. The Bush administration’s tax rebates had a positive but hardly dramatic effect on the economy.”

So, to paraphrase Rep. Pete King, “let’s knock out the econobabble.” What honestly has the Obama/Congressional fiscal package achieved? Here’s my take:

(1) It has validated the Principles of Macroeconomics lesson that fiscal policy is notoriously difficult to use as a countercyclical tool because of the large lags in legislative decision-making, execution, and spending of funds.
(2) It has shown that the relief package had serious design flaws from the beginning. The bulk of the impact was never designed to occur when it was most needed. Instead, it would ramp up the economy after most macroeconomic forecasting models forecasted that recovery would already be underway without an economic stimulus. Its long term residual effect will be to crowd out private investment, much as the Congressional Budget Office predicted.
(3) It has demonstrated that personal income or payroll tax cuts are a poor mechanism for stimulating the economy during severe downturns. All of the tax cuts were predictably saved by consumers.
(4) It has illustrated the counterproductive effects of certain incentives and long delays in implementing some aspects of the package. For instance, many renewable energy investment projects that would have occurred in the absence of fiscal stimulus projects are being placed on hold until the economic incentives kick in.
(5) It has confirmed that this administration is not very efficient in executing economic policy. In amount and timeliness of stimulus delivered and actual impact, even the Bush tax cuts worked better. The Obama administration has not delivered the funds appropriated on schedule and according to legislative intent.

Show me the money

Show me the money

There are some other aspects of the fiscal stimulus that deserve scrutiny. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, regional distribution of fiscal stimulus is uneven, with many economically hard-hit states receiving proportionally less than better off states. And, the well worn paths that federal dollars follow mean that the stimulus funds are disbursed according to a partisan geography.

Moreover, some of the programs funded by the stimulus program are clearly economically wasteful and even directly contradict administration policy in other areas. For instance, Senator Byrd’s environmentally destructive carbon creating economic boondoggle, Corridor H, was initially awarded $21 million from the stimulus package.

So, if Mr. Obama’s claim of credit is not credible and the trickle of fiscal stimulus has done little to boost the economy, who or what should receive accolades for the obvious stabilization of financial markets and the economy? To some extent, the mere changing of administrations and more policy activism has served to boost consumer confidence, even if that has not yet resulted in much additional consumer spending. To some small extent, the fiscal stimulus is having a beneficial impact. For instance, some parts of the funds released so far have softened the blow for states of next fiscal year revenue shortfalls. Moreover, aid to low-income workers and the unemployment has had salutary effects.

But, the real force behind the slow turnaround has been the expenditure of TARP funds and actions of the Federal Reserve to shore up the financial system and inject liquidity in unprecedented ways.

Surely, Mr. Obama must realize that real leadership requires giving credit where credit is due.

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