Why Are Americans So Mad About the Stimulus?

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President Obama's $787 billion stimulus rescued the economy and saved two million jobs, if you listen to the White House. It wasted hundreds of billions of dollars on pork and do-nothing projects, if you listen to Capitol Hill Republicans (or, sigh, Americans). I think the truth about the Recovery Act is somewhere in the middle leaning toward the White House's interpretation. But my opinion is a drop in an ocean of roiling discontent.

Three-fourths of Americans think the stimulus was mostly a waste. Only 12 percent know that the administration cut taxes in the stimulus with the Making Work Pay program. Anger about the stimulus is, I think, a proxy for three other vexations: anger over the unemployment rate; anger over the selective bailouts of Detroit and Wall Street; and an amorphous national perception that lots of people certainly seem to be angry, about something.

Richard Posner ties this anger to the reemergence of America's debt as a serious national issue. He writes (my comments annotated):


It was inevitable that the depression was going to increase America's public debt, which had grown rapidly in recent years because of the Bush administration's fiscal incontinence. But had the administration not decided to ask Congress to approve a $1 trillion health care reform, the deficit would not have achieved the salience in public discourse that it has achieved[1]. It is somewhat, though not completely naive, of people to think that running a high and growing deficit is as dangerous for a nation as for a a family (unless the nation is Greece), but it is an understandable reaction and again one the administration has been unable to counter[2]. The administration is tongue-tied when it comes to explaining its economic policies, perhaps because it has no effective spokesman.[3]

[1] Counterfactuals are impossible to prove one way or another, but I see little evidence that health care reform turned us into fiscal hawks. Here's a page that collects polls about national priorities. In January 2010 CBS found four percent of Americans say debt reform is their national priority; 52 percent chose the economy, and 13 percent chose health care. Polls from NBC and CNN suggest that concern about the deficit peaked during the summer of 2009 but have trended down since September, just as the health care debate heated up.

I suppose you could subscribe to the Mickey Kaus theory that Peter Orszag and the administration followers hoisted themselves on their own petard by selling health care reform as fiscal reform from the start without recognizing that cost saving would be both elusive and politically troublesome. But the polls suggest that the sheer size of the spring/early-summer bailouts and multi-hundred-billion-dollar economic rescue plans drove most of the deficit fears.

[2] Posner's right. It is naive to compare federal debt to family debt, especially in a recession when families will try to pinch pennies and the government will try to juice shortfalls in private demand with extra spending because families are pinching pennies. But it's even more misguided for the administration to mock its own deficit spending -- and Obama has done that, many, many times. He's compared government money to Monopoly money, compared deficit spending to generational theft, and said the government should tighten its belt because families are tightening their belts, which is a confused misreading of his own counter-cyclical spending policy.

[3] The administration is responding to two rational stimuli: First it wants to defend its own budget. Second it wants to reflect seemingly widespread fears about out of control spending. But you can imagine how difficult it is to both defend your deficits and sympathize with public fear about deficits. One way to chop this Gordian Knot is to find a metaphor that compares these huge deficits something good in the short term and bad in the long term. Like Vicodin use.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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