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The Facts About Stimulus Spending

Separating economic myths from economic truths

Veronique de Rugy
July 8, 2011

Editor’s Note: Reason columnist and Mercatus Center economist Veronique de Rugy appears weekly on Bloomberg TV to separate economic fact from economic myth.

Myth 1: Stimulus spending can jump start the economy and fix unemployment.

Fact 1: Recent experience suggests stimulus spending won’t help.

There’s no question President Barack Obama inherited a lousy economy. Yet even many prominent Democrats, including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin and Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, now acknowledge that after two and a half years in office, the president owns the economy. Unfortunately for him, things still aren’t looking so so good. That’s why the president called on Congress last week to pass a series of spending measures that he said would boost the economy, including additional infrastructure spending and an extension of the payroll tax cut for another year.

With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to update my chart on the level of stimulus spending and unemployment rates since 2009.

The chart is based on the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Center for Data Analysis. As you can see, the administration’s promise that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) would keep unemployment rates from reaching 8.8 percent and would create some 3 million jobs—90 percent of them in the private sector—did not materialize.

The unemployment rate started at 7.6 percent when President Obama took office and peaked at 10.2 percent in October 2009. Since the enactment of the stimulus bill in February 2009, the unemployment rate has not approached pre-ARRA levels, even though $382 billion has been made available by government departments and agencies (on top of tax credits and other tax-related items). In fact, unemployment recently edged up, from 9 percent in April to 9.1 percent in May.

Based on this data, it is hard to make the case that doing more of the same will help. Yet that is precisely what New York Times columnist Paul Krugman think we should do. In his view, these dire results are due to a stimulus that was too small. It’s difficult to imagine what level of stimulus spending would be large enough for Krugman. What I do know is that we have spent $666 billion to date, yet unemployment remains above 9 percent. And under even the rosiest of assumptions, which claim 2.4 million jobs created, each of those jobs cost $278,000 (see here).

Myth 2: Additional infrastructure spending is an effective way to stimulate the economy and create jobs.

Fact 2: In theory, infrastructure spending injects more money into the economy than other types of government spending. In reality, however, politicians rarely include infrastructure spending in stimulus bills. Instead, they spend money on items like transfers and tax cuts. Only 3 percent of the last stimulus went to infrastructure.

Economists on both sides of the aisles argue that one reason why the stimulus failed is that it wasn’t designed properly. Stanford University’s John Taylor, for instance, has argued that although much money was spent, very little stimulus money was spent in the form of actual government purchase. In a paper with he co-authored with John Cogan, Taylor finds that, out of the total $682 billion package, federal infrastructure spending was just $0.9 billion in 2009 and $1.5 billion through the first half of 2010—or less than four-tenths of 1 percent.

Taylor and Cogan also noted that most of the money generated by tax cuts was saved, not spent, and that the money that went to state governments was spent to reduce the states’ reliance on borrowing and on other “non-purchase” items, such as transfer payments, subsidies, and interest payments. In other words, the additional money that went to states and taxpayers didn’t change a thing. Taylor claims that a better-designed stimulus would have probably been more effective.

But experience tells us that the next stimulus won’t be any better. As the chart above shows, only 3 percent of the last stimulus went to infrastructure spending. Why? Because such programs are not political winners. For one thing, they take too long to produce results. Therefore they always take a back seat to politically-popular tax credits and transfers to the states.

Furthermore, while it may be true that additional infrastructure spending would have proved more effective than the current stimulus, that doesn’t change the fact that once the stimulus money goes away, the jobs and increased demand also disappear, and the government is left holding the debt.

Myth 3: Tax rebates will stimulate the economy.

Fact 3: The evidence says they don’t. First, people usually save the extra money. Second, even if tax rebates did increase consumption, companies don’t hire employees or build new plants because of a one-time boost.

This chart shows how personal disposable income jumped thanks to the 2008 tax rebate, the tax credits in the stimulus, and the 2010 payroll tax cut. It also shows that personal consumption did not increase noticeably as a result of these government actions. In fact, formal statistical work by Joel Slemrod, a professor of tax policy at the University of Michigan, has shown that rebates generally produce no statistically significant increase in consumption. Basically, tax credits and rebates produce greater savings, not greater consumption.

The theory that tax rebates and payroll tax cuts will result in an increase in consumption suffers from several serious problems. First, it assumes people don’t realize that the extra cash flow is temporary and that businesses don’t realize that the new consumption won’t last. Tax rebates, for example, assume that if people get extra money to increase their consumption, businesses will then expand production and hire more workers. But this is not true. Even if producers notice an upward blip in sales after the rebate checks go out, they will know it's temporary. Companies won't hire more employees or build new factories in response to a temporary increase in sales. Those who are foolish enough to do so will go out of business.

Contributing Editor Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Veronique de Rugy is Senior Research Fellow

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