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The rosy apocalypse

POSTED: July 22, 2009 10:14 a.m.
Barack Obama spent all of 2008 running against the sputtering economy, and warned earlier this year of a crisis “we may not be able to reverse.” Yet, as the unemployment rate climbs beyond the administration’s projections, Vice President Joe Biden informs us that the administration “misread how bad the economy was.”
Apparently we were going to experience a once-in-a-lifetime economic crisis comparable to The Great Depression without a particularly high unemployment rate. This was the promise of the Obama administration, which indulged in hair-raisingly alarmist economic rhetoric while pumping out unduly hopeful economic projections. If the Reagan administration gave us the rosy scenario, the Obama administration has given us the rosy apocalypse.
The rosy apocalypse is an artifact both of ideological naivete and knowing cynicism. The administration genuinely believed, against all historical experience, that government spending would boost us out of the recession. And it knew it had to assume an unrealistically rapid, robust economic recovery, because otherwise the already-horrid deficit projections would look worse. So Obama talked up the crisis to get the stimulus passed, and after that ... happy days again!
If only the job market were cooperating. In a report prior to the passage of the stimulus, the soon-to-be head of the Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer, suggested the unemployment rate wouldn’t increase beyond 8 percent. It now stands at 9.5 percent and will go higher. The Obama stimulus is falling victim to the poor timing and inefficiencies of all such recession-fighting spending programs.
Out of the $787 billion of the stimulus, roughly 60 percent goes to individuals in temporary tax rebates and increased entitlement spending. This will provide little boost to the economy. History says that people will only spend 20-40 percent of a temporary tax rebate for the very good reason that they know it’s temporary.
Then there is the direct government spending. It will definitely make its way into the economy. The question is when. It has to run through various bureaucracies, which means delay. According to Doug Elmendorf, the head of the Congressional Budget Office, only about half of the $308 billion in spending will make it out the door by the end of fiscal year 2010 (i.e., by next September). That’s about $150 billion during the next year and a half in a $14 trillion economy — in other words, a trifling 0.7 percent of the economy during that period.
And this stimulus was touted as timely and targeted? Confronted by the inadequacies of the current program, its advocates have a predictable solution — a new one. Since the worthiest projects were presumably already covered in the first stimulus, a second stimulus would have to fund even more marginal priorities, and it would get into the economy even later.
In other words, it would replicate rather than rectify the failures of the first stimulus.
Obama is resisting a second stimulus so far, but was foolish ever to go down this route. Now he’s stuck hoping for the advent of his rosy apocalypse — as soon as possible.

Lowry is editor of the National Review.
 

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