Steve Chapman
Mired in excruciating negotiations over the budget and the debt ceiling, President Barack Obama might reflect that things didn't have to turn out this way. The impasse grows mainly out of one major decision he made early on: pushing through a giant stimulus.

When he took office in January 2009, this was his first priority. The following month, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with a price tag eventually put at $862 billion.

It was, he said at the time, the most sweeping economic recovery package in our history," and would "create or save three and a half million jobs over the next two years."

The president was right about the first claim. As a share of gross domestic output, it was the largest fiscal stimulus program ever tried in this country. But the second claim doesn't stand up so well. Today, total nonfarm employment is down by more than a million jobs.

What Obama didn't foresee is that his program would spark a populist backlash and give rise to the tea party. Where would Michele Bachmann be if the stimulus had never been enacted -- or if it had been a brilliant success?

To say it has not been is to understate the obvious. The administration says the results look meager because the economy was weaker than anyone realized. Maybe so, but fiscal policy is a clumsy and uncertain tool for stimulating growth, which the past two years have not vindicated.

The package had three main components: tax cuts, aid to state governments and spending on infrastructure projects. Tax cuts would induce consumers to buy stuff. State aid would prop up spending by keeping government workers employed. Infrastructure outlay would generate hiring to build roads, bridges and other public works.

That was the alluring theory, which vaporized on contact with reality. The evidence amassed so far by economists indicates that the stimulus has come up empty in every possible way.

Consider the tax cuts. Wage-earners saw their take-home pay rise as the IRS reduced withholding. But as with past rebates and one-time tax cuts, consumers proved reluctant to perform their assigned role.

Claudia Sahm of the Federal Reserve Board and Joel Slemrod and Matthew Shapiro of the University of Michigan found that only 13 percent of households indicated they would spend most of the windfall. The rest said they preferred to put it in the bank or pay off debts -- neither of which boosts the sale of goods and services.

This puny yield was even worse than that of the 2008 tax rebate devised by President George W. Bush. Neither attempt, the study reported, "was very effective in stimulating spending in the near term."


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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