Oct 5, 10:04 am
The story of the stimulus

I read the Ryan Lizza piece on Larry Summers with a great sense of relief. It turns out that in talking to Ryan, I managed to say almost nothing worth quoting — which is, in these circumstances, very much the goal. (If I have something controversial to say, I’ll say it in the column or this blog, thank you.)

For me, the really interesting passage was this one:

The most important question facing Obama that day was how large the stimulus should be. Since the election, as the economy continued to worsen, the consensus among economists kept rising. A hundred-billion-dollar stimulus had seemed prudent earlier in the year. Congress now appeared receptive to something on the order of five hundred billion. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate, was calling for a trillion. Romer had run simulations of the effects of stimulus packages of varying sizes: six hundred billion dollars, eight hundred billion dollars, and $1.2 trillion. The best estimate for the output gap was some two trillion dollars over 2009 and 2010. Because of the multiplier effect, filling that gap didn’t require two trillion dollars of government spending, but Romer’s analysis, deeply informed by her work on the Depression, suggested that the package should probably be more than $1.2 trillion. The memo to Obama, however, detailed only two packages: a five-hundred-and-fifty-billion-dollar stimulus and an eight-hundred-and-ninety-billion-dollar stimulus. Summers did not include Romer’s $1.2-trillion projection. The memo argued that the stimulus should not be used to fill the entire output gap; rather, it was “an insurance package against catastrophic failure.” At the meeting, according to one participant, “there was no serious discussion to going above a trillion dollars.”

So Christy Romer’s math looked similar to mine: even given what we knew last December, the straight economics said that we should have a stimulus much bigger than the Obama administration’s initial proposal. And given what happened to that proposal in the Senate — we actually ended up with only about $600 billion of actual stimulus — what we eventually got was half of what seemed appropriate in December. And the actual news on the economy since then has been worse than was expected back then, so that the stimulus now looks way short of what we need.

Maybe that was all that could have been done, politically. But it does not sound, from the Lizza article, as if either the economic team or the political team thought much about the risks of finding themselves where we are now — with the economy still failing to deliver job growth despite the stimulus — even though those risks were completely apparent at the time.