New York Times Death Spiral Watch
Rhetorical Questions Department

Economic Stimulus Plans: Why I Like Barack Obama's Slightly More

Paul Krugman praises John Edwards's and Hillary Rodham Clinton's proposed stimulus packages, and criticizes Barack Obama's. I think Paul has got this one wrong.

Bear in mind that I don't yet believe that the case for a fiscal stimulus is strong--although I may well change my mind in a month or two. Congress and the president have a role to play in stimulus only if monetary policy has shot its bolt--which it has not--or if unemployment is rising rapidly and it is important to get cash quickly into the hands of people who will spend it and so keep the rise in unemployment from being as large. We are not there yet--at least I don't think so--but we may be there in three months.

And from this perspective the Barack Obama plan looks pretty good to me: it cuts a lot of identical $250 checks to people many of whom would spend it, and so boost employment. The checks could be in people's hands by April.

By contrast, the John Edwards and Hillary Rodham Clinton plans--well, a $30 billion housing crisis fund... anti-urban blight programs... helping local housing authorities... mortgage moratoriums... heating assistance... $5 billion in energy credits to encourage purchases of low emission vehicles and efficient appliances... funds to train and put to work people making public buildings more energy efficient...

These are all worthy. But this is not a bill that can be passed quickly--the housing provisions, at least, are one of those things where the devil is in the details of the drafting and where quick, clean passage and implementation is almost impossible. The proposal is not Obama's: we are going to stimulate demand by cutting a lot of identical checks via a refundable tax credit--a thing that the government can do well and quickly. And this, I think, matters a lot. A stimulus bill is likely to become a lobbyist-pleasing Christmas tree, ineffective and destructive. Obama's plan seems to me to have the best chance of avoiding that fate--if he could sign Pelosi and Reid up to move a clean, focused bill.

John Edwards and Hillary Rodham Clinton might respond that these stimulus packages are political rather than policy documents--acts of campaigning rather than acts of governance--and they are right, up to a point.