President Obama and Congress Should Clearly Define Stimulus Success

There has been a lot of doom and gloom talk recently on both sides of the stimulus debate. But we need to set that pointless (though a little fun) rhetoric aside and start creating a clear definition of success, and failure, by which to measure the outcome enacting the stimulus package.

President Obama and company have repeatedly claimed that if we don’t act NOW, as in yesterday, all will be lost.

Republican Sentaor Arlen Specter wrote in a Washington Post op-ed today that he will be one of the few members of the GOP crossing the isle to vote for the stimulus because, “The country cannot afford not to take action” and that “in three or six months… it may be too late.”

What does that mean? What would “too late” look like? Does it mean the end of America? Freedom ends as we know it? Five years of economic malaise? Twenty years? The fear is just a general propaganda message intended to freak everyone out enough that they will abandon rational thought and just go with it. Many fell for it with former Treasury Secretary Paulson, now the Bloody Valentine claims are back.

Of course the other side, my side, is guilty of this as well. I too am guilty of warnings of epic danger through my blogs and commentaries. We use words like communism and socialism to evoke images of the USSR and nations rusting into oblivion by their ultra planned societies. Clearly the stimulus package will not make America into East Germany, nor will the trillions in spending doom us to the Soviet fate without recourse. Capitalists and anti-stimulusists shouldn’t fall into the trap of propaganda messaging because it carries the same false tone as the arguments we so harshly criticize–and its not likely to be accepted by those we seek to persuade.

The problems with the stimulus are indeed dire, but it is better to point out tangible, practical outcomes from the stimulus. Congress’s massive spending bill will potentially drag the economic downturn out another 10 years, like Japan faced in their 1990s Lost Decade (that’s drawing on history, not hysterics). The stimulus and additional spending will increase the size and debt of government to a degree that future generations will have a hard time excelling as they might have with heavy weight of deficits and loan interest hanging over their heads (but this is not the end of the world, just an unfortunately outcome). The stimulus will make the states more dependent in the future on the federal government and define a new state-federal relationship that is unlikely to change in the near future, which in turn will lead to less state specific policy and more legislating from Washington–and that is a bad thing because the federal government does not understand state and local issues as well as those on the ground, down in the weeds, working on the issues day to day (too often we don’t explain why what we see as bad is really bad).

In this vein, the pro-stimulus people should outline clearly what they see to be the great doom for America if we didn’t do anything. Economists are saying this will all be over in two years tops if we do nothing (not that they who missed this who economic downturn are suddenly infallible). Is that what “too late” would mean? Is that what the worst would be?

President Obama and Congress, in passing this bill should make it clear to the American people what, tangibly, they see as the result of inaction and then juxtapose that with what they want from this stimulus package. Is it just three million jobs over two years? What if unemployment increases after two years because the jobs were just temporary? Is it an increase in GDP? Thawed credit markets? A gain in the stock market? Knowing exactly what we are shooting for gives us a measure for success to hold the stimulus bill to. We can know if it “worked” or if it “failed”, at least by the author’s standards.

This assessment from our leaders is unlikely to be completely accurate. Their definition of success is unlikely to take into account all the unseen consequences and tertiary effects of spending. But that’s where we come in.