Fun With George Will

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Sunday, 12 September 2010 08:32

The Washington Post likes to run columns that are chock full of mistakes so that readers can have fun picking them apart. That is why George Will's columns appear twice a week. Let's have a little fun with the latest, which is an attack on President Obama's economic agenda.

First, Will is anxious to tell readers that Democrats are telling the public that stimulus did not work because many think we need more stimulus. Actually, people who think we need more stimulus simply note that the stimulus was helpful, but not large enough for the task. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the stimulus added between 1.7 and 4.5 percent to GDP since its enactment (that's between $240 billion and $740 billion in additional output). It also lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.7 and 1.8 percentage points.

This was not enough to fully offset the damage from the collapse of an $8 trillion housing bubble. The collapse wiped out more than $1.2 trillion in annual demand (roughly $600 billion in lost consumption and $600 billion in lost construction). By comparison, the stimulus injected about $300 billion a year into the economy in 2009 and 2010. Roughly half of this was offset by cutbacks at the state and local level. So, we were looking at a net increase government sector stimulus of $150 billion, which was being used to counteract a decline in private sector demand of $1.2 trillion. 

Is anyone surprised that this was not enough? Will's conclusion that stimulus does not work is like seeing someone throw a few buckets of water on their burning house and then telling the fire department not to waste time with their hoses, because obviously water will not be effective against the fire.

Will then goes on to tell readers that Herbert Hoover was a great supporter of fiscal stimulus. Actually, real spending did increase under Hoover, but this was primarily because of the huge deflation of the era. In any case, the facts do not support Will's claim that:

"Real per capita federal expenditures almost doubled between 1929, Hoover's first year as president, and 1932, his last."

Actually, real federal expenditures rose by less than 20 percent if we follow Will and take 1932 as the endpoint. If we include 1933, which was partially a Hoover budget, then the increase is still just 44.9 percent. That is substantial, but certainly not "almost doubled."

Will goes on to complain that:

"Barack Obama has self-nullifying plans for stimulating the small-business sector that creates most new jobs. He has just endorsed tax relief for such businesses but opposes extension of the Bush tax cuts for high-income filers, who include small businesses with 48 percent of that sector's earnings."

Actually, most of the businesses whose taxes will be affected by the increase will only be trivially impacted. According to an analysis from the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, the average tax hit from Obama's plan on filers earning between $200,000 and $500,000 (the overwhelming majority of the affected small business owners) is $400. It is unlikely that a tax increase of $400 will have a big effect on the investment or hiring decisions of a business netting $350,000 a year. 

Therefore, the answer to question posed by Will: "does this increase anyone's confidence?" is almost certainly that it probably has almost no impact on anyone's confidence since it is largely irrelevant to the decisions of the vast majority of businesses.

Finally, Will ends by making a simple mistake of logic. He wants to beat up on the Cash for Clunkers program by arguing that only 1 in 6 of the cars purchases under the program were actually induced by the tax credit, as opposed to simply moving up a purchase that would have taken place anyhow.

While one may hope for a better ratio (and others have calculated higher ratios), since spending at a time of very high unemployment is essentially free, who cares? If we did not have the cash for clunkers program, fewer people would have bought more fuel efficient cars. The unemployment rate would be higher and we would be consuming more energy and emitting more greenhouse gases. How is that good? 

Will also complains that Cash for Clunkers hit poor people by raising the price of used cars. While it definitely did raise the price of used cars, most poor people already own cars. This means that Cash for Clunkers raised the price of the cars they own. For poor car owners this picture is largely a wash, their next car will cost more, but they will get more money on a trade-in. First time buyers are unambiguously hurt, but this is a minority of the poor.