Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Anything But Targeted

The best stimulus summary is by Robert Samuelson in Monday's Washington Post:
Judged by his own standards, President Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus program is deeply disappointing. For weeks, Obama has described the economy in grim terms. "This is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill recession," he said at his Feb. 9 news conference. It's "the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression." Given these dire warnings, you'd expect the stimulus package to focus almost exclusively on reviving the economy. It doesn't, and for that, Obama bears much of the blame.

The case for a huge stimulus -- which I support -- is to prevent a devastating downward economic spiral. Spending is tumbling worldwide. In the fourth quarter of 2008, the U.S. economy contracted at a nearly 4 percent annual rate. In Japan, the economy fell at a nearly 13 percent rate; in Europe, the rate was about 6 percent. These are gruesome declines. If the economic outlook is as bleak as Obama says, there's no reason to dilute the upfront power of the stimulus. But that's what he's done.

His politics compromise the program's economics. Look at the numbers. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that about $200 billion will be spent in 2011 or later -- after it would do the most good. For starters, there's $8 billion for high-speed rail. "Everyone is saying this is [for] high-speed rail between Los Angeles and Las Vegas -- I don't know," says Ray Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association. Whatever's done, the design and construction will occupy many years. It's not a quick stimulus.

Then there's $20.8 billion for improved health information technology -- more electronic records and the like. Probably most people regard this as desirable, but here, too, changes occur slowly. The CBO expects only 3 percent of the money ($595 million) to be spent in fiscal 2009 and 2010. The peak year of projected spending is 2014 at $14.2 billion.

Big projects take time. They're included in the stimulus because Obama and Democratic congressional leaders are using the legislation to advance many political priorities instead of just spurring the economy.

By the way, Obama has put Joe Biden in charge of implementing the stimulus package.

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