The current climate reminds former Freddie Mac economist Arnold Kling of the battle of the Somme in World War I (a war everyone knew would be over in six months). "Having experienced nothing but failure using offensive tactics up to that point, the Allies decided that what they needed to try was ... a really big offensive," Kling writes. "My guess is that in 1916, anyone who doubted his own ability to direct an enormous offensive involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers would never have made it to general. Similarly, today, anyone who doubts the ability of a handful of technocrats to sensibly allocate $800 billion would never make it into government or the mainstream media."
That might overstate it a bit, because some naysayers can be heard. Economist Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute notes that whatever the benefits of the proposed stimulus, they probably don't outweigh the enormous costs of the debt we would incur. As a result of the stimulus, the deficit this year would equal the total cost of the federal government in 2000. That's on top of $7.76 trillion in bailouts pledged by the government, according to Bloomberg.com.
The real reason the stimulus package will be gigantic is not that the smartest people with the best ideas say it needs to be. It's that Obama's real priority is to get the bill out as quickly as possible, which means every constituency gets something, including Republicans. Indeed, Republicans are a priority because if he can bribe them into supporting the bill, that might prevent them from campaigning against it in 2010 if it proves ineffective or counterproductive. Hence Obama's proposed billions in tax breaks for corporate welfare addicts and the lobbyists who love them. Democrats are justly skeptical about a tax break for a company that decides not to lay off its workers.
The GOP is right to question this "shovel-ready" infrastructure "investment." From World War II to the early 1990s, according to economist Bruce Bartlett, not a single stimulus bill succeeded at moderating the recession it was aimed at, while many bills helped invite the next recession. Bartlett supports a stimulus in theory (as do I); he merely notes that the political process tends to be just that -- a political process -- and it produces political results.
The best stimulus might be to trim -- or temporarily eliminate -- the payroll tax. That would put money in the hands of the people who need it -- and know best how to spend it. But that would be "too ideological" because it rejects the assumption that government knows best, and it would reward taxpayers, not politicians.