Monday, January 21, 2008


On how stupid Bush is for trying to sell us again on a silly IRS check as "stimulus":
Stimulus issues

The big problem with attempts to provide temporary economic stimulus is how to ensure that the money gets spent. As Milton Friedman pointed out 50 years ago, consumers tend to base their spending on “permanent income” — the income they expect to have over the long run — rather than their income in any given year. So an $800 check from the Treasury tends, other things equal, to be mostly saved rather than spent.

How does one get around this?

One answer is that not everyone bases spending on permanent income. In particular, people who don’t have a savings cushion and can’t borrow (or can only borrow at high credit-card rates) may be “liquidity constrained,” spending less than they’d like to given their permanent income. For example, a laid-off worker who expects to get another job eventually, but meanwhile is running low on savings, is very likely to spend an extra check.

Another answer is for the government to spend the money directly — or simply refrain from spending cuts that would otherwise happen. For example, state and local governments, which aren’t supposed to run deficits, may be forced to slash spending in a recession; aid to these governments can avert these spending cuts, which is a real plus for the economy.

All of this suggests that if you want a stimulus plan to actually affect demand, it should focus on people likely to be liquidity constrained and on sustaining government spending.

But — you knew this was coming, didn’t you? — it seems that the Bush administration wants to restrict the plan to income tax rebates. This means excluding the people most likely to be liquidity-constrained — because people having a bad year probably won’t owe income taxes that year — and shying away from any aid to direct government spending.

The point is that the debate over exactly how the $145 billion or whatever gets allocated is not, as some might think, a second-order issue. It’s probably at the heart of whether this plan has any real effect.

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