Legend has it that on their epic voyage back home to Ithica from Troy, King Odysseus and his crew had to pass through the deadly Strait of Messina. On one side, the monster Scylla threatened to eat any sailor who passed too closely. And on the other, Charybdis’ gaping maw threatened to swallow Odysseus’s ship whole. The Obama Administration faces a similar difficulty in navigating the U.S. economy through the current crisis aboard Congress’s nearly $1 trillion (and possibly more) economic recovery flotilla.
The ‘stimulus plan’ as it is more commonly known, is cast as a tool of fiscal policy in which the government temporarily increases its consumption of goods and services --- in this case civil infrastructure improvements --- in order to stabilize demand in the short term, thus enabling firms to keep employing workers that they would otherwise have to lay off. The administration (and most of America) hopes that this massive spending will stave off further decline while the private sector retools and banks have managed to sell off their euphemistically monickered “toxic assets” (to the Government) and start lending again.
While this sounds good in theory, an inherent danger that the government’s temporary programs will end up becoming permanent. Social programs designed to ease pain in the short term might ultimately morph into gargantu an entitlements, the likes of which have not been implemented since the New Deal, when many of today’s grand entitlements, including the now almost bankrupt social security system, were promulgated. Everyone in Washington knows that news of new government spending plan tends to act as chum in the water for predatory private interests, who then employ scores of lobbyists whose very business it is to stay in business by keeping the money flowing.
Those who know how Washington works fear that, under the guise of saving the nation from an economic Scylla, the government will go from being the consumer of last resort to the only customer in town. President Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel signaled as much last November when he uttered the ominous phrase, “you never want to let a serious crisis go to waste. And by that I mean to do things you think you could not do before.”