So What’s the Problem?

January 5, 2009 6:30 a.m.

Since my earlier post was more arch and cryptic, I wanted to expand on what seems to be the problem with the Obama stimulus plan, as revealed in the current round of leaks. I would point to three key issues. And I’m going to base these three on the premise — which is by no means clear — that the business tax cuts included in the bill aren’t particularly egregious on their own terms but rather ones that make some economic sense in the situation we find ourselves in.

So with that, the three.

First, there seems to be a decent consensus that the tax rebates from last year had little stimulative effect on the economy. So while it’s a good thing for families on the margin to get another $500 or $1,000, it’s not clear how much bang for the buck you’ll get for the money spent in terms of creating demand/consumer spending in the economy.

Second, the amount of the bill that comes in tax cuts leaves the spending side of the bill really small — judged by the standards of what most economists seem to think is necessary, like $400 billion over two years. So it’s not just the logic of the tax cuts on their own merits but the degree they’re beggaring the spending side of the ledger. (A lot of this just comes down to whether or not you buy into the Keynesian premise of the whole exercise, of course. But let me note for the record that there does seem to be a decent rationale for significant tax cuts in year one of the bill, since you need to get money into the economy rapidly and there may not be enough projects that can be started quickly. That leaves the question of why so much of it is also included in year two. I fear that may be the ‘tell’.)

Third, and in some ways this is the most troubling. It would be far better on many counts to bring in substantial Republican support for this bill. And I don’t just mean that in the BS sense in which President Bush usually meant it, which was to say essentially, ‘Of course we’d like you to vote for exactly what we want. More the merrier. But if you don’t want to vote for our ideal bill, tough luck.’ No, I think there’s a real logic in not going the 51 votes model President Bush followed. But Obama seems to be telegraphing that to a significant degree the fundamental structure of the legislation is being built around accommodating the concerns of Republicans — members of a political party that are about as unpopular and weak as you can get at the moment. And that sounds a lot like he’s negotiating with himself, something that will embolden opposition and invite Republicans to up the ante even further.

These are just leaks. We don’t have details. Some are speculating that this is part of some global head fake by the Obama folks. I hope so. But put me down as very skeptical.

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