10 Reasons to Whack Obama's Stimulus Plan
January 27, 2009 02:10 PM ET | James Pethokoukis
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Some people are going to oppose President Obama's ginormous stimulus package just because they're on a different political team. But when you look at the economic evidence, it sure seems like an economic recovery package that's heavy on government spending and light on tax cuts is just the opposite of what we should be doing right now. Try this closing argument on for size:
1) A 2005 study by Andrew Mountford and Harald Uhlig "analyzed three types of policy shocks: a deficit-financed spending increase, a balanced budget spending increase (financed with higher taxes) and a deficit-financed tax cut, in which revenues increase but government spending stays unchanged. We found that a deficit-spending shock stimulates the economy for the first 4 quarters but only weakly compared to that for a deficit-financed tax cut." In other words, FDR vs. Clinton vs. Reagan, Reagan wins.
2) Harvard economist Robert Barro looked at the multiplier effect of World War II military spending -- supposedly the Mother of All Stimulus Plans and found that "wartime production siphoned off resources from other economic uses — there was a dampener, rather than a multiplier." Barro prefers eliminating the corporate income tax to massive government spending.
3) Alberto Alesina of Harvard and Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago want to adress the fear and confidence issue by creating "the incentive for people to take more risk and move their savings from government bonds to risky assets. There is no better way to encourage this than a temporary elimination of the capital-gains tax for all the investments begun during 2009 and held for at least two years."
4) An initial CBO analysis found that a mere $26 billion out of $274 billion in infrastructure spending, just 7 percent, would be delivered into the economy by next fall. An update determined that just 64 percent of the stimulus would reach the economy by 2011.
5) University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate Gary Becker doubts whether all this stimulus spending will do much to lower unemployment: "For one thing, the true value of these government programs may be limited because they will be put together hastily, and are likely to contain a lot of political pork and other inefficiencies. For another thing, with unemployment at 7% to 8% of the labor force, it is impossible to target effective spending programs that primarily utilize unemployed workers, or underemployed capital. Spending on infrastructure, and especially on health, energy, and education, will mainly attract employed persons from other activities to the activities stimulated by the government spending. The net job creation from these and related spending is likely to be rather small. In addition, if the private activities crowded out are more valuable than the activities hastily stimulated by this plan, the value of the increase in employment and GDP could be very small, even negative."
6) Christina Romer, the new head of the Council of Economic Advisers, coauthored a paper in which the following was written about taxes: "Tax increases appear to have a very large, sustained, and highly significant negative impact on output. Since most of our exogenous tax changes are in fact reductions, the more intuitive way to express this result is that tax cuts have very large and persistent positive output effects." And former Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey tack on this addendum: "The macroeconomic benefits of tax cuts can be two to three times larger than common estimates of the benefits related to spending increases. The relative advantage of tax cuts over spending is even clearer when the recession is centered on the household balance sheet."
7) Economists Susan Woodward and Robert Hall find that the multiplier effect from infrastructure spending maybe just 1-for-1, less than that 3-to-1 ratio for tax cuts that Romer found: "We believe that the one-for-one rule derived from wartime increases in military spending would also apply to increases in infrastructure spending in a stimulus package. We should not count on any inducement of higher consumption from the infrastructure stimulus."
8) Economist John Taylor thinks it better to let the Federal Reserve deal with the short-term problems in the economy, while fiscal policy should attend to long-term issues: "In the current context of the U.S. economy, it seems best to let fiscal policy have its main countercyclical impact through the automatic stabilizer ... It seems hard to improve on this performance with a more active discretionary fiscal policy, and an activist discretionary fiscal policy might even make the job of monetary authorities more difficult. It would be appropriate in the present American context, for discretionary fiscal policy to be saved explicitly for longer-term issues, requiring less frequent changes. Examples of such a longer-term focus include fiscal policy proposals to balance the non-Social Security budget over the next ten years, to reduce marginal tax rates for long run economic efficiency, or even to reform the tax system and Social Security."
9) Massive stimulus didn't work in the Great Depression. As this Heritage Foundation study notes: "After the stock market collapse in 1929, the Hoover Administration increased federal spending by 47 percent over the following three years. As a result, federal spending increased from 3.4 percent of GDP in 1930 to 6.9 percent in 1932 and reached 9.8 percent by 1940. That same year-- 10 years into the Great Depression--America's unemployment rate stood at 14.6 percent." Same goes for Japan and its Great Stagnation of the 1990s.
10) Olivier Blanchard, the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, coauthored a paper which found "that both increases in taxes and increases in government spending have a strong negative effect on private investment spending."
Bottom line: There is another model out there. One that worked in 2003, 1997 and 1981. But will America use it?