Sunday, March 16, 2014

Robert Samuelson Fudges More Numbers

Robert Samuelson is expressing skepticism about the success of the stimulus:
There’s the puzzle: monster stimulus, midget recovery.

How to explain the contrasting stories?
If Samuelson, an economics commentator, actually followed his subject, he would be aware that the stimulus was not so big in relation to the gap it needed to cover. Dean Baker has been addressing this issue for years.
The arithmetic on this is straightforward. With the collapse of the bubble, we suddenly had a huge glut of unsold homes. As a result, housing construction plunged from record highs to 50-year lows. The loss in annual construction demand was more than $600 billion. Similarly, the loss of $8 trillion in housing equity sent consumption plunging. People no longer had equity in their homes against which to borrow, and even the people who did would face considerably tougher lending conditions. The drop in annual consumption was on the order of $500 billion.

The collapse of the bubble in nonresidential real estate cost the economy another $150 billion in annual demand, as did the cutbacks in state and local government spending as a result of lost tax revenue. This brings the loss in annual demand as a result of the collapse of the bubble to $1.4 trillion.

Compared with this loss of private sector demand, the stimulus was about $700 billion, excluding some technical tax fixes that are done every year and have nothing to do with stimulus. Roughly $300 billion of this was for 2009 and another $300 billion for 2010, with the rest of the spending spread over later years.

In other words, we were trying offset a loss of $1.4 trillion in annual demand with a stimulus package of $300 billion a year. Surprise! This was not enough.
It's not as if Dean Baker is alone in his opinion. Paul Krugman seems prescient in describing Samuelson's form of analysis:
So why does everyone — or, to be more accurate, everyone except those who have seriously studied the issue — believe that the stimulus was a failure? Because the U.S. economy continued to perform poorly — not disastrously, but poorly — after the stimulus went into effect.

There’s no mystery about why: America was coping with the legacy of a giant housing bubble. Even now, housing has only partly recovered, while consumers are still held back by the huge debts they ran up during the bubble years. And the stimulus was both too small and too short-lived to overcome that dire legacy.

This is not, by the way, a case of making excuses after the fact. Regular readers know that I was more or less tearing my hair out in early 2009, warning that the Recovery Act was inadequate — and that by falling short, the act would end up discrediting the very idea of stimulus. And so it proved.
But, you know, Samuelson found an economist you've probably never heard of before, and the guy has a position at a brand name university and a blog, so why research any more deeply into the subject? Samuelson's primary argument is that we should live in fear of dire consequences that never materialized, and thus that the government should do nothing more to stimulate the economy. Fortunately for him, the Republican Party is on his side so we're apt to see the painfully slow recovery continue to inch along. If another recession hits soon, Samuelson may discover out that the phrase, "an economy in eclipse," has more significance than as a parting shot taken at those who actually understand the subject.

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