Is This Why the Stimulus Didn't 'Work'?

If you're in the business of making pronouncements about economics and politics, it's always safe to say that the stimulus has failed. The average American seems to agree. A July CBS poll showed that three out of four respondents believe the Recovery Act and the mini-stimuli in its wake either damaged the economy or had no effect.

If it failed, why did it fail? Were the tax cuts poorly designed? Did it spend too quickly to bail out the states, or spend to leisurely to build roads and rail? One fairly well-established explanation for the stimulus' failure to stimulate is that the government gave money to states and people who didn't spend it on new things, like goods and jobs. Instead we spent it on old things, like employees' salaries and debt payments.

According to the latest Allstate-National Journal Heartland poll, consumer spending is the second most important indicator of an economic recovery. At the same time, we think spending more money is the least important we can do as individuals to help the economic recovery. As consumers, we're not spending money. As recovery watchdogs, we're waiting for other people to start spending money. We're pocketing the stimulus even as we expect others to spend it.

The charts:

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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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