By now it is clear to everyone that the Obama administration bungled the 2009 stimulus package. The dispute now is over the reasons for its failure. The conventional wisdom is coalescing around a view crystallized in a column by Mr. Conventional Wisdom himself, Charlie Cook of the National Journal: “The administration’s initial response, the much-maligned economic-stimulus package, was far too modest and unfocused.”
Cook is a rational analyst, so it is striking that he is able to advance an argument that is, on its face, nothing short of demented. The idea that the 2009 stimulus, which cost $840 billion, could have been less “modest” and more “focused” does violence to the facts of very recent American history and to the arugments made for the stimulus by its advocates at the time.
Even at its “far too modest” size, the stimulus was, by leagues, the costliest such effort in American history. Its astounding price tag was justified during the debate over its passage by the fact that there was a genuine economic emergency that had to be addressed. And the mere fact of addressing it with enormous public resources was, we were told, enough to do the trick almost on its own. The central point of taking emergency measures, we were told, was precisely not to focus them but to cause them to wash over the economy as a whole.
How many times during that emergency were we reminded of the supposed wisdom of John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in 1930 that it was enough to employ a man to perform any task at hand to create the conditions for macroeconomic growth? Simply “to dig holes in the ground,” Keynes wrote, “paid for out of savings, will increase, not only employment, but the real national dividend of useful goods and services.” This is the famous “multiplier effect” we also heard so much about, according to which $1 in government spending would blossom into $3 of value for the entire economy. In effect, we were told by the most enthusiastic believers in the magic of the multiplier effect, that for $840 billion in spending, we’d get more than $2 trillion in economic activity.