Recall the original Obama economic team. It consisted of President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and White House economists Lawrence Summers, Christina Romer, Austan Goolsbee, and Jared Bernstein. It was the Democrats’ Best and Brightest—but not one with a smidgen of executive experience in either the private or public sector. And into their hands was entrusted an $800 billion stimulus spending plan, a package whose details were fleshed out by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. What could go wrong?
Lots, it turns out. And Michael Grabell, a reporter for ProPublica, documents the many failings of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in “Money Well Spent? The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, the Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History,” out this week. Rather than focus on questionable Keynesian economics behind the stimulus, Grabell focuses on its execution and management.
In reporting on the stimulus over three years, I traveled to 15 states, interviewed hundreds of people and read through tens of thousands of government documents and project reports. What I found is that the stimulus failed to live up to its promise not because it was too small (as those on the left argue) or because Keynesian economics is obsolete (as those on the right argue), but because it was poorly designed. Even advocates for a bigger stimulus need to acknowledge that their argument is really one about design and presentation.
Take the tax cut piece of the plan. Inspired by new research in behavioral economics, Team Obama constructed the $116 billion tax credit so it was “dribbled” out in paychecks at about $10 a week. Grabell:
Perhaps that would have worked if the tax cut had been substantial. But spread out in tiny increments, it did little to overcome the prevailing fear of losing a job, a home and years of retirement savings. Not only did Obama lose the political credit but also the consumer excitement that a large check would have provided.
Or how about the infrastructure spending. Grabell says it was beset by regulatory obstruction and union pandering:
The timing of the stimulus was poor to bring about the flood of construction projects everyone expected in the first year. States had to advertise the project to allow contractors to submit bids. They needed to review those bids and sign the contracts. Then, they had to go back to the U.S. Department of Transportation for the final OK. ..
Some projects in public housing, waterworks and home insulation remained paralyzed for six months to a year as short-staffed agencies reviewed Buy American waiver requests and calculated prevailing wages for weatherization work in every county in America.
In Michigan, human services officials estimated that 90% of the homes in line for weatherization work would need a historic preservation review. But as of late fall 2009, the office responsible had only two employees.
Public transit advocates expected a windfall for bus companies like New Flyer in St. Cloud, Minn. But the transit money took longer to get out the door because every grant had to be reviewed by the Labor Department to ensure that it wouldn’t have a negative impact on transit unions.
In short, Big Government screwed up the Big Spend. Biden said the stimulus would “literally drop kick us out of the recession.” But Grabell concludes that “the stimulus ultimately failed to do what America expected it to do — bring about a strong, sustainable recovery. The drop kick was shanked.”
And that’s about what you might expect from a White House run by brilliant theoreticians with no one around to do a reality check. Let’s contrast Team Obama with Team Reagan. The Gipper’s cabinet had Donald Regan, former CEO of Merrill Lynch; George Schultz, former president of engineering firm Bechtel; Caspar Weinberger, also of Bechtel; Malcolm Baldridge, CEO of manufacturer Scovill. And, of course, there was Reagan himself, the former two-term governor of America’s most populous state.
So here we are, three years and a trillion bucks later. Unemployment is still over 8 percent and the economy grew just 1.7 percent last year. And many economists think the fourth quarter’s 2.8 percent GDP growth might be as good as it gets for a while. The Federal Reserve’s recent economic forecast, for instance, sees the economy growing between 2.2 percent and 2.7 percent with unemployment between 8.2 percent and 8.5 percent.
Is Obama really going to run on the success of the stimulus? Republicans should sure hope so.