Is Our Stimulus Working?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on October 30, 2009

Jacob Sullum takes on the contention that the stimulus package is helping get us out of a recession:

In August, Christina Romer, chairwoman of the White House Counsel of Economic Advisers, suggested that we think of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as an extremely expensive course of antibiotics. “Suppose you go to your doctor for a strep throat,” Romer said in a speech to the Economic Club of Washington, “and he or she prescribes an antibiotic.” If your fever goes up after you take the first pill, just as unemployment rose after the stimulus bill was enacted, that doesn’t mean “the medicine is useless,” Romer noted. It could simply be that “the illness was more serious than you and the doctor thought.”

But it’s also possible that your sore throat and fever are caused by a virus, not a bacterium, in which case the antibiotic will not help. Eventually, though, you will recover on your own, and you may mistakenly conclude that your doctor’s prescription did the trick.

Such erroneous causal inferences are always a hazard when it comes to government spending aimed at alleviating a recession. Even if most or all of the money is disbursed after the recession has ended (which is typically the case), stimulus advocates can say the recovery would have been weaker without the spending. Since there’s no readily available parallel universe in which to test that counterfactual hypothesis, it can never be conclusively disproved.

Still, Romer seemed unreasonably sure that Dr. Obama’s medicine was already kicking in. Although she conceded that “the evidence from the path of the economy over time can’t settle the issue of what the effects of the Recovery Act have been,” her answer to the question posed in the title of her speech—“Is It Working?”—was “absolutely.”

Read on, and you will see that there is no credible way to credit the stimulus for any kind of economic recovery going on right now.

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