I saw this story in the Omaha World Herald last week: Benefits of stimulus bill spread unevenly over U.S. As I read through it, I became increasingly impressed. The journalists start off by laying out who said what about the benefits of stimulus spending. They provide quotes and facts from the White House, the Congressional Budget Office, and Joe Biden’s spokesperson. They include viewpoints and analysis from professors at Berkeley, Harvard, George Mason and the editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. They even talked it over with the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers – the people in charge of receiving and accounting for the billions of dollars represented by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. What impressed me most, though, was that they did their own research – not just reporting what the Administration or Congress told them was happening or was supposed to be happening.
“Spending the Stimulus” is a website put together by McClatchy Newspapers and the Medill News Service to track what was promised and what was done, how much was actually spent and where and on what the stimulus billions were spent. I was intrigued by their finding that “much of the stimulus money has yet to go out the door” eighteen months after the emergency, gotta-fix-it-now legislation was passed. After Congress approved $750 billion for the Wall Street Bailout in October 2008, I’m pretty sure all that money was out the door before December!
Even more intriguing is the finding that the money was spread around rather unevenly. Beyond the infantile “Why Did North Dakota got More Than Me?” rhetoric going around among the states (by the way, the McClatchy-Medill per-capita graphic shows that most of New England got more than North Dakota), is the more interesting discussion of where would the spending be most stimulating. Transportation money was directed to the states under the “usual formula” despite the fact that the Great Recession didn’t follow a formula as it spread throughout the economy. The result: “researchers were unable to find any relationship between unemployment in a given area and the amount of stimulus dollars spent there.” If unemployment is lower in some areas than in others, it wasn’t because of the stimulus spending.
Maybe this is a good thing. Instead of focusing on the political necessity of justifying billions of dollars to pull the country out of the Great Recession (unlike the complete lack of justification for bailing out Wall Street), the McClatchy-Medill report raises more interesting points. Is it “rewarding failure” to send more money to the states that most failed to develop diversified economies that are resilient to downturns? Would we be throwing good money after bad to provide more spending for states that didn’t manage the cash inflow from the rapid rise in property taxes that came with rapidly rising home prices? Finally, did we really want a central government to make every decision – county by county – about where and on what the money would be spent?
If you missed this story last week, I highly recommend perusing the “Spending the Stimulus” website for more stimulating idea.