Imagine if, one year ago, Congress had passed a stimulus bill that really worked.
Let’s say this bill had started spending money within a matter of weeks and had rapidly helped the economy. Let’s also imagine it was large enough to have had a huge impact on jobs — employing something like two million people who would otherwise be unemployed right now.
If that had happened, what would the economy look like today?
Well, it would look almost exactly as it does now. Because those nice descriptions of the stimulus that I just gave aren’t hypothetical. They are descriptions of the actual bill.
Just look at the outside evaluations of the stimulus. Perhaps the best-known economic research firms are IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody’s Economy.com. They all estimate that the bill has added 1.6 million to 1.8 million jobs so far and that its ultimate impact will be roughly 2.5 million jobs. The Congressional Budget Office, an independent agency, considers these estimates to be conservative.
Yet I’m guessing you don’t think of the stimulus bill as a big success. You’ve read columns (by me, for example) complaining that it should have spent money more quickly. Or you’ve heard about the phantom ZIP code scandal: the fact that a government Web site mistakenly reported money being spent in nonexistent ZIP codes.
And many of the criticisms are valid. The program has had its flaws. But the attention they have received is wildly disproportionate to their importance. To hark back to another big government program, it’s almost as if the lasting image of the lunar space program was Apollo 6, an unmanned 1968 mission that had engine problems, and not Apollo 11, the moon landing.
The reasons for the stimulus’s middling popularity aren’t a mystery. The unemployment rate remains near 10 percent, and many families are struggling. Saying that things could have been even worse doesn’t exactly inspire. Liberals don’t like the stimulus because they wish it were bigger. Republicans don’t like it because it’s a Democratic program. The Obama administration hurt the bill’s popularity by making too rosy an economic forecast upon taking office......................