SLOW DOWN

Why the Stimulus Shouldn't Stimulate You

By Steven E. Landsburg
Sunday, January 27, 2008

As a general rule, economic policies command bipartisan support only when they're incoherent. Take, for example, the fiscal stimulus package now bulldozing its way through the legislative process. It's poorly conceived, it's unlikely to work, and it's sure to do a lot of collateral damage.

The idea, we're told, is to stave off an all-out recession by stimulating both investment (through tax cuts for businesses) and consumption (through tax rebates to individuals). But hold it right there.

Investment and consumption are natural rivals.

Investment means converting resources into machines and factories; consumption means converting those same resources into TV sets and motorboats. In anything but the very short run, more of one means less of the other.

Ah, say the package's more honest proponents, that's exactly what we care about -- the very short run. And in the very short run, we can have more of everything if only we put more people to work.

Fine, but what makes you think that this package will put anyone to work? The idea behind the stimulus deal is to give people tax cuts so they'll feel richer and spend more. But government can't make people richer on average; all it can do is shuffle wealth around. To pay Peter, you must tax Paul (or at least promise to tax Paul in the future, when your debts come due). Peter spends more, but Paul spends less.

Now maybe you can time things so Peter goes on a spending spree today but Paul doesn't tighten his belt until next month. (Then again, maybe you can't: Paul's no fool, and he's likely to start cutting back as soon as he sees higher taxes on the horizon.) But even if you manage to pull this trick off, sooner or later you must tax Paul. So today's fiscal stimulus comes at the expense of tomorrow's fiscal drag.

Moreover, even if you do somehow manage to increase spending, that doesn't mean you'll put Americans to work. More likely, you'll put Asians to work producing goods for the U.S. market. President Bush seems to have become confused on this key point because he misunderstands supply-side economics. He has vaguely remembered that tax cuts put people to work, but he's forgotten that only marginal tax cuts put people to work. Non-marginal tax cuts -- such as the ones in the stimulus package -- have exactly the opposite effect, when they have any effect at all.

The reason: When people feel richer, they're less eager to work. An unemployed laborer with a tax rebate in his pocket might well feel less urgency about getting retrained or finding a new job. (Not every unemployed laborer will react this way, but you can be sure that some will.) If Americans demand more but produce less, the difference has to come from abroad.

Here, then, is the great irony: To stimulate spending, tax cuts have to make people feel richer -- but the richer people feel, the slower they'll be to rejoin the workforce. The more effective the tax cuts, the longer they threaten to prolong the expected recession.

That's why the stimulus package is unlikely to work.

Now let's talk about why we shouldn't want it to.


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