Daily Archives: June 29, 2009

Why The Stimulus Isn’t Working

by Stephanie Kelton

President Obama’s economic advisors are predicting that the recession will come to an end sometime this year, as fiscal stimulus spending kicks into high gear. But the conditions for an economic recovery have not been laid.

What the left hand giveth (see table), the right is quickly taking away.

And I’m not talking about the “right-wing.” I’m talking about state and local governments across the nation, who are unwittingly pulling the rug out from under the federal government and thwarting any chance for a sustainable recovery by 2010.

But it isn’t their fault. Tax revenues have fallen off a cliff, leaving states with a cumulative budget gap of more than $100 billion for fiscal ’09.

To deal with these shortfalls, states have laid off or furloughed thousands of employees, raised taxes and fees, and slashed spending on education and other social programs – some, many times over. It was supposed to balance their ’09 budgets. But it wasn’t nearly enough.

As it turns out, state officials were far too optimistic about the ’09 revenue picture, and they are scrambling to deal with widening shortfalls before the end of the fiscal year (which, by the way, is tomorrow for all but a few states). At this stage in the game, there are only a couple of ways for states to balance their ’09 budgets (it’s too late for more tax hikes and spending cuts). Most are expected to do one of two things: (1) tap rainy day funds or (2) use federal stimulus money.

For example, Ohio is expected to dip into its $948 million rainy day fund in order to deal with its worst-ever decline in tax revenue. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has indicated that his state will be forced to use some of its federal stimulus money to plug a budget gap of nearly $1 billion by June 30.

The problem, of course, is that the macroeconomic effects of these micro-level policies are working at odds against the federal stimulus effort. Jobs that are being created (or saved) through the left hand of the Obama stimulus package are disappearing at least as rapidly as the right hand slashes billions from state budgets.

And, while Obama’s advisors are focused on the silver lining in the recent job data (losses are slowing), the employment picture remains bleak. The following table shows the change in unemployment rates – by state – since the start of the recession and from April ’09 to May ’09.

All but two states saw an increase in unemployment last month, and fourteen states are now in double-digit territory. President Obama’s economic team has admited that the national average will probably reach double-digits, but they anticipate a turnaround as a flood of stimulus money makes its way into the economy later this year.

But Obama’s advisors may be overlooking the fact that much of the stimulus money isn’t going to be there to fund new projects and drive economic growth. This is because states like Massachusetts are diverting stimulus money away from future projects in order to cover past (2009) budget shortfalls.

And the worst may be yet to come. States are bracing for even bigger revenue shortages next year, and governors across the nation are warning of deeper cuts in fiscal 2010. And right now, no single state poses a bigger threat to the nation’s economic recovery than California.

With an estimated $24 billion budget shortfall and a July 1 deadline to close its deficit, California’s top officials asked the federal government for emergency funding to help alleviate further drastic cuts in state spending. But the president’s top economic advisors – including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and White House economists Lawrence Summers and Christina Romer – rejected Gov. Schwarzenegger’s request for aid, choosing, instead, to admonish the governor for failing to put California’s fiscal house in order.

The Washington Post reported that Gov. Schwarzenegger was denied federal assistance because White House officials feared that it would lead to “a cascade of demands from other states.” This kind of head-in-the-sand thinking will have tragic consequences.

States need more aid, and they need it now. The White House should be faced with a cascade of demands, and these demands should come from a broad coalition of governors, who storm the White House – cameras rolling – to explain the dire consequences of denying them emergency aid. Randy Wray suggested, in a previous post, that states need another $400 billion or so, and that seems like a reasonable figure. I would urge our nation’s governors to immediately request an additional $1,000 per resident.

As I have argued in a previous post, the Obama administration’s initial forecasts were far too rosy, and the Economic Recovery & Reinvestment Act didn’t provide enough aid for states. More needs to be done, and it needs to be done now. Every dollar slashed from a state budget undermines a dollar of federal stimulus spending.