What’s Wrong With the Stimulus Plan


By Joe Campbell
February 3rd, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Aside from the partisan power play that seems to be motivating most of the Republican opposition to the stimulus plan, there are a number of fair-minded criticisms.

First, the plan lacks the Obama touch – the deft promise to cut those programs that don’t work and to make sure the ones that are around still do work, the libertarian paternalistic designs of Cass Sunstein, the nimble government program that does not coerce but merely offers opportunity. Of course, there is a sensible reason for this. The stimulus is needed right now – and it will take time to design new programs with this balancing between libertarian principles and liberal ends in mind. So, Obama has decided that this stimulus package must work within existing programs – which Republicans have used as an excuse to attack those programs.

Second, there is not a clear exit strategy. Many of these spending measures and tax breaks are supposed to be emergency measures that the government will only maintain during this crisis – but new spending and cuts in taxes both are hard to roll back. The idea that taxes are hard to raise is, of course, the basis of the “Starve the Beast” strategy that conservatives adopted (as described by George Will):

For years, many conservatives advocated a “starve the beast” approach to limiting government. They supported any tax cut, of any size, at any time, for any purpose, assuming that, deprived of revenue, government spending would stop growing.

But they found out that spending was also hard to cut:

But spending continued, and government borrowing encouraged government’s growth by making big government cheap: People were given $1 worth of government but were charged less than that, the balance being shifted, through debt, to future generations.

Obama’s stimulus plan involves both increasing spending and cutting taxes. The question is – can we then raise taxes and cut spending after this is over? Obama has clearly indicated he intends to – and to shore up America’s long-term fiscal solvency by dealing with entitlement spending too. If he is able to pull off this Grand Bargain, then he will belong in the rank of the best presidents. If he is not, then this temporary increase could have disasterous effects.

Third, by trying to act so quickly, there will inevitably be unintended consequences. To avoid as many of these as possible, the bill should be cleaner and its provisions should work faster.

Fourth, as Robert Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post:

As it turns out, President Obama didn’t make the tough choices on the stimulus package. He could have either used the program mainly (a) to bolster the economy or (b) to advance a larger political agenda, from energy efficiency to school renovation…There were tough choices to be made – and Obama ducked them.

This bill is something of a muddle so far, in part because of the need for speed, and in part because Obama has let the House and Senate Democrats craft the bill, waiting to give his input until the conference in which the bills passed by the House and Senate will be reconciled.

Fifth, the bill offers both short term stimulus measures and downpayments on longer term (and worthy) projects. A stimulus bill should only include spending in the short term. The 75% goal Obama has set is too low. Every dime in the stimulus package should be out by the end of 2010. Kay Bailey Hutchinson ably stuck to this point in her Meet the Press appearance this past Sunday. Her confident demeanor and obvious grasp of policy made me wonder what had led John McCain to bypass her in choosing his Vice Presidential nominee. 

In short, most of the bills problems seem to come from the speed with which it is being forced out. This is a tradeoff Obama seems to be willing to make – as this bill is intended primarily to demonstrate that stimulus is coming and the problem is being taken seriously.