Commentary: The Case for a Second Stimulus
If there's one thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on, it's that the economy has seen better days. Indeed, looking at various employment statistics, it's hard for anyone to express optimism about the nation's economic condition. The national unemployment rate is 9.5 percent, and the number of workers unemployed for 27 or more weeks is at an historic high. The nation's present economic state has provided ammunition to critics who argue that the Recovery Act, the $787 billion package designed to stimulate the economy, has failed. The current economic situation has prompted calls from others for a second stimulus.
The breadth and depth of this recession (or at least its effects, since the recession officially ended months ago) are far worse than originally thought. During the Obama administration's transition into the presidency, its economic team famously predicted that the highest unemployment would rise would be 9 percent. Therefore, the need for the Recovery Act was predicated on the notion that unemployment would not go higher than 9 percent, and that without stimulus, the unemployment rate would still be as high as 7 percent in 2011.
Unfortunately, the unemployment rate went beyond 9 percent. It eventually peaked at 10 percent and has slowly come down to its current level, though some of that decline can be attributed to discouraged persons dropping out of the job market altogether. Future unemployment predictions don't provide a much brighter picture. A recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects unemployment in 2011 to stay above 9 percent, and the president's budget predicts unemployment will be 9.2 percent in 2011. The president's budget also gloomily predicts unemployment will not fall below 7 percent until 2014.
The economy's rough state does not mean that the Recovery Act failed, however. Rather, the high unemployment rate and continued general economic malaise shows that the economy was in worse shape than anyone could have imagined in the beginning. In fact, the Recovery Act has worked rather well. Both independent government agencies and third-party analysts have released many reports showing how the stimulus has helped bolster the economy, adding millions of jobs and boosting the nation's GDP. Yes, the economy is not doing well, but without the Recovery Act, it would be even worse off.
The problem is that the Recovery Act was not large enough. According to Ryan Lizza in an October 2009 New Yorker article, Obama's economic advisors, led by Christina Romer, recommended a much larger stimulus package, at least $1.2 trillion dollars, to help fill what was then predicted to be a $2 trillion hole in the nation's GDP. But because Congress was seen as unwilling to back a package of that size, "there was no serious discussion to going above a trillion dollars," as one Obama aide noted. Thus, thanks largely to political calculations, the administration supported a scaled-back version, which eventually came out to be $787 billion (and which is now worth roughly $862 billion, thanks to rising costs of various kinds), and which was only designed to prevent the nation's economy from outright collapse, not bring it out of recession as soon as possible.
Most of the current stimulus funds have already been obligated by federal agencies, and most of the funds will be paid out over the course of the coming year. In other words, the Recovery Act is beginning to run down, and its ability to pull the nation out of its economic slump is waning. With both the IMF and the White House forecasting 9 percent unemployment through 2011, the recession's effects are clearly going to be staying with us well past the effective end of the Recovery Act.
Since the economy is still struggling – in spite of everything that the underfunded Recovery Act has been able to accomplish – the nation needs a second stimulus. Another infusion of at least several hundred billion dollars will both alleviate the impact of the recession – through aid to the unemployed and support to the states – and help kick-start the economy. The nation is recovering, as demonstrated by rising GDP and falling unemployment, but it is not improving fast enough. States and local governments are still slashing spending and laying off workers, noticeably slowing the national recovery. A significant increase in the right type of federal spending can offset these cuts and further accelerate the economic upturn.
The second stimulus should not follow the blueprint of the first Recovery Act. About one-third of the Recovery Act was comprised of tax cuts, which, while helpful from a political standpoint, do not help the economy nearly as much as other forms of spending, at least in terms of having a multiplier effect. Of course, that's not to say that Congress should completely ignore the original stimulus' architecture: the act's prioritization of infrastructure projects, of reinvesting in the nation, was a good one, and should be repeated in the second stimulus.
In other words, Congress should immediately pass legislation to extend unemployment insurance to those out of work. That should be followed by a targeted bill that provides aid to states and spends additional funds on infrastructure projects.
Fiscal hawks argue that this prescription is absurd, since the nation is burdened with high deficits. They will agree to pass extended unemployment insurance but only if it is paid for by cutting other spending – exactly the wrong strategy at this time. These lawmakers raise the specter of ever-increasing debt levels, sky-high interest payments, and declining investor confidence, and they point to the ongoing fiscal crisis in Greece as a warning of what could happen to the United States. But these arguments fundamentally misstate the current economic environment.
Deficits are only problematic when potential lenders to the federal government are concerned by the prospect of government default. The concern is shown by subsequent demand for higher interest rates, which also makes it expensive for the government to borrow. In Greece, as investors began to doubt the nation's ability, or desire, to pay back its debt, the country slipped into a debt crisis. However, market data show no signs that investors think the U.S. is on the brink of default. Rates on 10-year Treasury notes are still low, and more importantly, stable. We are not even close to a Greece-like situation, as investors are clearly showing. If our nation's leaders believe it is necessary to take on more debt, there will most certainly be buyers.
Moreover, now is not the time for deficit reduction. It is far more important to get the economy back on track. Potentially having to pay larger interest payments in the future is certainly worth alleviating the very real current effects of the recession and helping get the nation back on its fiscal feet. The sooner the unemployment rate drops, the sooner the economy can begin to grow again and the sooner the nation's tax revenues will rebound, helping to bring down deficits in a self-correcting manner.