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NY Times Weighs In on Stimulus Bill

January 30, 2009
Op-Ed Columnist

Cleaner and Faster


Throughout 2008, Larry Summers, the Harvard economist, built the case for a big but surgical stimulus package. Summers warned that a “poorly provided fiscal stimulus can have worse side effects than the disease that is to be cured.” So his proposal had three clear guidelines.

First, the stimulus should be timely. The money should go out “almost immediately.” Second, it should be targeted. It should help low- and middle-income people. Third, it should be temporary. Stimulus measures should not raise the deficits “beyond a short horizon of a year or at most two.”

Summers was proposing bold action, but his concept came with safeguards: focus on the task at hand, prevent the usual Washington splurge and limit long-term fiscal damage.

Now Barack Obama is president, and Summers has become a top economic adviser. Yet the stimulus approach that has emerged on Capitol Hill abandoned the Summers parameters.

In a fateful decision, Democratic leaders merged the temporary stimulus measure with their permanent domestic agenda — including big increases for Pell Grants, alternative energy subsidies and health and entitlement spending. The resulting package is part temporary and part permanent, part timely and part untimely, part targeted and part untargeted.

It’s easy to see why Democrats decided to do this. They could rush through permanent policies they believe in. Plus, they could pay for them with borrowed money. By putting a little of everything in the stimulus package, they avoid the pay-as-you-go rules that might otherwise apply to recurring costs.

But they’ve created a sprawling, undisciplined smorgasbord, which has spun off a series of unintended consequences. First, by trying to do everything all it once, the bill does nothing well. The money spent on long-term domestic programs means there may not be enough to jolt the economy now (about $290 billion in spending is pushed off into 2011 and later). The money spent on stimulus, meanwhile, means there’s not enough to truly reform domestic programs like health technology, schools and infrastructure. The measure mostly pumps more money into old arrangements.

Second, by pumping so much money through government programs, the bill unleashes a tidal wave on state governments. A governor with a few-hundred-million-dollar shortfall will suddenly have to administer an additional $4 billion or $5 billion. That money will be corrosive both when washing in, and when it disappears in a few years time.

Third, the muddle assures ideological confrontation. A stimulus package was always going to be controversial, because economists differ widely about whether or how a stimulus can work. But this bill also permanently alters the role of the federal government, thus guaranteeing a polarizing brawl at the very start of the Obama presidency.

Fourth, Summers’s warnings about deficits have been put aside. There is no fiscal exit strategy. Instead, permanent spending commitments are entailed with no permanent funding stream to pay for them.

Fifth, new government expenditures on complex matters are being designed on a hasty, reckless timetable. As readers may know, the policy I am most passionate about is pre-K education. Yet I fervently hope that the Head Start expansion is dropped from this bill. A slapdash and shambolic expansion could discredit the whole idea.

Wise heads are now trying to restore structure and safeguards to the enterprise. In testimony this week, Alice Rivlin, Bill Clinton’s former budget director, raised the possibility of separating the temporary from the permanent measures and focusing independently on each. “A long-term investment program should not be put together hastily and lumped in with the anti-recession package,” Rivlin testified. “The elements of the investment program must be carefully planned and will not create many jobs right away.”

The best course is to return to the original Summers parameters — temporary, targeted and timely — thus making the stimulus cleaner and faster.

Strip out the permanent government programs. Many of them are worthy, but we can have that debate another day. Make the short-term stimulus bigger. Many liberal economists have been complaining it is too small, so replace the permanent programs with something like a big payroll tax cut, which would help the working class.

Add in a fiscal exit strategy so the whole thing is budget neutral over the medium term. Finally, coordinate the stimulus package with plans to shore up the housing and financial markets. Until those come to life, no amount of stimulus will do any good.

This recession is scary and complicated. It’s insane to try to tackle it and dozens of other complicated problems, all in one piece of legislation. Leadership involves prioritizing. Those who try to do everything at once will end up with a sprawling, lobbyist-driven mess that does nothing well.