New York Times Death Spiral Watch
New York Times Death Spiral Watch

Stimulus Packages: Edwards, Clinton, Obama

I think Paul Krugman has got this one wrong. He writes:

Responding to Recession - New York Times: John Edwards... driving his party’s policy agenda... has done it again on economic stimulus: last month, before the economic consensus turned as negative as it now has, he proposed a stimulus package including aid to unemployed workers, aid to cash-strapped state and local governments, public investment in alternative energy, and other measures. Last week Hillary Clinton offered a broadly similar but somewhat larger proposal. (It also includes aid to families having trouble paying heating bills, which seems like a clever way to put cash in the hands of people likely to spend it.) The Edwards and Clinton proposals both contain provisions for bigger stimulus if the economy worsens....

The Obama campaign’s initial response to the latest wave of bad economic news was, I’m sorry to say, disreputable: Mr. Obama’s top economic adviser claimed that the long-term tax-cut plan the candidate announced months ago is just what we need to keep the slump from “morphing into a drastic decline in consumer spending.” Hmm: claiming that the candidate is all-seeing, and that a tax cut originally proposed for other reasons is also a recession-fighting measure — doesn’t that sound familiar?

Bear in mind that I don't yet believe that the case for a fiscal stimulus is strong--although I may change my mind in a month or two, depending on how the data flow looks. The principal organization for successful stabilization policy is the Federal Reserve. Congress and the president have a role to play only in two situations: first, if monetary policy has shot its bolt and cannot do anything more--and we are far from that point--and second, if the Federal Reserve has been caught flat-footed in the wrong policy position, 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.

From this perspective Obama's plan looks pretty good:

Obama stimulus package emphasizes quick cash in hand: a $250 tax credit to 150 million workers to offset the payroll tax paid on the first $8,100 of earnings. He urged a further $250 tax credit per worker if employment declines three months in a row. He also would give a one-time, $250 payment to Social Security recipients who would not benefit from the tax credit, followed by another $250 payment if employment declines three months straight. The immediate relief would cost $45 billion, plus another $45 billion if the economy weakened...

The plan is clean: there is no place for lobbyists to hang ornaments on it--which means that quick passage is possible. The first $45 billion of checks could be cut and sent out with this April's tax refunds. It meets Elmendorf and Furman's requirements that a fiscal stimulus be timely and temporary. It does not do so well on "targeted"--it doesn't do a great job at making sure the money gets to people who will spend it and thus boost aggregate demand--but this is at least partly offset by its simplicity, which is indeed essential if we are going to get the timely and the temporary right.

John Edwards's and Hillary Rodham Clinton's plans look, to me, likely to be less effective. Consider Hillary Rodham Clinton's:

Talking Points Memo | Clinton offers economic stimulus plan: a $30 billion housing crisis fund to help states and localities deal with the fallout of foreclosures... ease the effects of vacant properties with anti-blight programs and helping local housing authorities buy and rent out vacant properties. Setting a 90-day moratorium on subprime mortgages of at least five years, or until housing lenders have converted mortgages into loans families can afford. The proposal also would increase the portfolio caps at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Providing $25 billion in emergency energy assistance for families facing rising heating bills.... Providing $10 billion to extend unemployment insurance for those struggling to find work while supporting families. Providing $5 billion in energy efficiency by doing such things as giving tax credits to encourage purchases of low emission vehicles and efficient appliances windows and other clean technologies. She also proposes funds to train and put to work people making public buildings more energy efficient...

These are all worthy causes--things that the government should be spending more money on. 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. Funds to train and put to work people making public buildings more energy efficient--well, those aren't timely. 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. As Stan Collender wrote last Thursday:

Christmas 2008 May Be Coming Early For Lobbyists | Capital Gains and Games: A tax lobbyist friend told me yesterday that he's gone into the economic stimulus business. In response to my inquiring look that begged for more information, he said that I'd be surprised how many industries and professions have tax reductions that they want in any economic stimulus package that is considered this year and are looking to him to come up with arguments that confirm they will, indeed, be stimulative. In other words, even though it hasn't yet been introduced, the economic stimulus that has become all the rage in Washington these days has already become a Christmas tree with everyone and anyone who has something they want to do trying to reframe that proposal in terms of its positive impact on the economy. In case anyone hasn't noticed, this includes the White House, with the president all but saying that the reason the economy may be slowing is because of uncertainty about whether the tax cuts enacted during his administration will be extended when they expire in 2010. None of this is suprising. Even though its chances of being enacted are small, an economic stimulus bill may be the only thing that actually moves through the legislative process this year. In lobbyist parlance: it may be the only train leaving the station in 2008. But no matter how good the messaging, loading up the bill with a variety of provisions is one of the things most likely to lead to its demise. It will be too big, too political, too expensive, and take far too long to debate and pass.

The best way to keep a stimulus bill from becoming a lobbyist-pleasing ineffective and destructive Christmas tree in which a lot of the money goes to people who won't spend it and a lot more to people who shouldn't get it is to keep the legislative vehicle simple and clean. Boosting employment in the short term by cutting a lot of identical checks by April if we need to is something congress and the IRS can do. And Obama's plan seems to me to have the best chance of doing that--if he can sign Pelosi and Reid up to move a clean, focused bill.

John Edwards and Hillary Rodham Clinton and their staffs--they don't seem to have grasped that governance is best when you ask congress to do things that are within its competence, and ask the administrative branch to do things that are within its competence. They 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.