Benefits Of The Stimulus

I have already had a recent post on the success of the stimulus but as The New York Times brought the topic up again today, and there has been so much misinformation spread, it is worth reviewing again what was achieved by the stimulus:

The stimulus could have done more good had it been bigger and more carefully constructed. But put simply, it prevented a second recession that could have turned into a depression. It created or saved an average of 1.6 million jobs a year for four years. (There are the jobs, Mr. Boehner.) It raised the nation’s economic output by 2 to 3 percent from 2009 to 2011. It prevented a significant increase in poverty — without it, 5.3 million additional people would have become poor in 2010.

And yet Republicans were successful in discrediting the very idea that federal spending can boost the economy and raise employment. They made the argument that the stimulus was a failure not just to ensure that Mr. Obama would get no credit for the recovery that did occur, but to justify their obstruction of all further attempts at stimulus.

So the American Jobs Act was killed, and so was the infrastructure bank and any number of other spending proposals that might have helped the country. The president’s plan to spend another $56 billion on job training, education and energy efficiency, to be unveiled in his budget next month, will almost certainly suffer a similar fate.

This may be the singular tragedy of the Obama administration. Five years later, it is clear to all fair-minded economists that the stimulus did work, and that it did enormous good for the economy and for tens of millions of people. But because it fell short of its goals, and was roundly ridiculed by Republicans and inadequately defended by Democrats, who should have trumpeted its success, the president’s stimulus plan is now widely considered a stumble.

This enabled Republicans to champion an austerity policy that produced deep reductions in discretionary spending, undoing many of the gains begun in 2009. The result has been a post-stimulus recovery that remains weak and struggling, undermining an economic legacy that should be seen as a remarkable accomplishment.

The legacy of that policy, detailed by the White House last week in its final report on the effects of the stimulus, affects virtually every American who drives, uses mass transit, or drinks water. It improved 42,000 miles of road, fixed or replaced 2,700 bridges, and bought more than 12,000 transit vehicles. It cleaned up water supplies, created the school reforms of the Race to the Top program, and greatly expanded the use of renewable energy and broadband Internet service.

It’s probably too late for the White House to persuade skeptics about its program, but its assessment echoes the views of many independent economists and the independent Congressional Budget Office. “The Recovery Act was not a failed program,” the C.B.O.’s director, Douglas Elmendorf, told annoyed Republican lawmakers in 2012. “Our position is that it created higher output and employment than would have occurred without it.”

Government spending worked, helping millions of people who never realized it. And it can work again, whenever lawmakers agree that putting people to work is more important than winning ideological fights.

In retrospect the evidence is pretty clear that the stimulus should have been bigger, but at the time I have my doubts as to whether a bigger stimulus could have passed. Republican arguments about the harm of spending money we don’t have, even if simplistic and not well grounded in economics, were believed by too many people, and often accepted by the media. As I noted in December, the media often presents deficit-cutting as the centrist or desired viewpoint when there are times when increased government spending is needed to stimulate the economy. While Obama did too little, criticism of him must be balanced by the knowledge that the Republicans would have created far more damage with austerity budgets accompanied by further tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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    JimZ says:

    (Almost) fair enough.  But exactly four years ago, President Obama declared that he was finished with stimulus and was henceforth turning to deficit reduction.  Today employment is still well below pre-recession trend, and is likely to be so for another decade.  The GOP and the corporate media got a free pass to believe, and assert, that (a) stimulus doesn’t work, and (b) Democrats couldn’t get more passed anyway, so why bother?  Why? because there was zero leadership on the subject from the White House.  One by one, of late all of the former Obama economic advisors from that time are now sheepishly admitting that they were complicit in this terrible policy error and failure of leadership.  The only exception being Christina Romer, who at the time did fight for more stimulus but was brushed aside by the president and the rest of his (so-called) economic team.  And no, it is not “in retrospect” that stimulus should have been bigger, actual economists knew it then and said so, but once again the country fell to “conventional wisdom,” political and otherwise.

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