House Democrats passed a nearly trillion-dollar so-called stimulus bill this week at the urging of President Obama, but the spending may do little or nothing to get this economy moving again. Not even the president can explain how giving more money to prevent sexually transmitted diseases or $50 million more to the National Endowment for the Arts will stimulate anything but a good laugh. Most of the money in the bill will take so much time to work its way into the real economy, it's unlikely it will shorten the current recession or keep people from losing their jobs. Much of it will simply fund the pork-barrel projects dear to the heart of members of Congress. And with Democrats in control of both Congress and the White House, there will be no check on profligate spending.
But if we're going to have a trillion-dollar stimulus, here's a modest proposal for a better way to do it. This approach would cost about the same as the Democrats' current plan, but it could put money into people's pockets in weeks, not years.
Why not give every man, woman, and child in the United States $3,000 to spend on pretty much anything they choose. The price tag would be about $900 billion, barely more than what is in the House package now. But unlike the Democrats' plan, which has government making the decision about how the money should be spent, people would get to decide for themselves.
There'd be no limits on who could receive the money -- a rich man would get the same three grand that a poor woman or child received. The program isn't intended to redistribute wealth, but to infuse the economy with cash. The only rule that would apply is that the money would have to be spent within a certain period of time, say 18 months. In addition, most of the money would have to be spent on buying things: payment toward a new or used car, down payment on a home, some new appliances, home remodeling, clothes, electronics, or even a vacation. Hey, you could even use it to put solar panels on your roof or erect a windmill in your background if that's what you wanted. But only a portion of the money could go to paying down credit card or current mortgage debt -- say, a third -- and then only if the person was already two months in arrears in their payments.
In order to keep this cash distribution about as simple as possible but still allow the money to be tracked so that we know that people are actually buying stuff not hording the money in their bank accounts, the government would disperse it in the form of debit cards linked to the individual's Social Security number. The government could surely subcontract this out to one of the large credit card companies for a small administrative fee charged to the cardholder, similar to what some companies charge now for gift cards. And recipients would receive a statement that they would have to submit with their tax return within the time period to ensure they played by the rules.
The virtue of this plan would be that the market would allocate the money far more efficiently than any scheme government bureaucrats could come up with. A young family of four would suddenly have $12,000 that they could use toward a down payment on a home or a new car. Imagine how quick the inventory in depressed housing would dry up if suddenly young families had that kind of cash to put down on a home. And automobiles would go racing off the car lots.
Now, of course, all this cash could be inflationary -- government spending usually is. And we know all those debit cards would be paid for with borrowed money -- but so is Nancy Pelosi's "stimulus package." Nonetheless, the beauty would be that consumer spending would bring the country out of recession, create new private sector jobs and protect existing ones, and the government would get back at least a portion of what it gave away in taxes from people who were suddenly working instead of drawing unemployment compensation.
Sure, this is a radical proposal. But no more so than the boondoggle House Democrats just passed. If we're going to borrow a trillion dollars, I'd rather ordinary people got to make the decisions about where it's going to go, not Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.