Leader Blues

Monday, February 09, 2009

EDITORIAL>>Nation needs a stimulus bill

Enough Republicans — three, to be exact — agreed on Friday to support a $780 billion stimulus package to get it passed in the Senate. But the virtually solid Republican opposition to President Obama’s big stimulus program is as mysterious as it is dangerous. Either the party leaders remain wedded to the economic doctrines that guided the Bush administration — cut taxes on the well-to-do and wait for the good times to roll — or else they embrace the ideas of its most vocal Republican ideologue, Rush Limbaugh, who says the party’s task is to see that the United States collapses under Barack Obama to prove that his liberal ideas do not work.

We ought to be satisfied now that cutting taxes and doing nothing in the face of economic withdrawal are not a remedy but a failed experiment. In eight years that featured three major tax cuts for corporations and high incomes the country gained a net of fewer than 2 million jobs, the worst economic performance for any eight-year period since the Great Depression. Compare it with 22.6 million under eight years of Bill Clinton. The country shed 3.6 million jobs in President Bush’s final year, which ended two weeks ago, and a million pink slips are now being handed out every seven weeks. Economists say the worst is yet to come. We pray that they are wrong.

Everyone should be a little nervous about borrowing $780 billion in a gamble that it will restart the country’s great economic engine. After all, the massive deficits incurred by the profligacy of the Bush years were not an inconsiderable factor in the troubles. He inherited a mighty economy fueled by the first back-to-back treasury surpluses in two generations.

But there is hardly an economist of any stripe who does not now believe that the risk should be taken to stimulate the economy. Some say that the $780 billion is too much. Others, even conservatives, wonder if it is far too little. President Franklin Roosevelt’s spending programs moved the country out of the Depression’s depths but it took the truly mammoth investment in war industries to kick the economy into high gear.

The president’s program includes large tax cuts both for business and middle-class taxpayers, but Republican critics want more relief for people with investment incomes. A few say it includes too little for infrastructure work and too much for people down on their luck: extended unemployment benefits, food stamps, education and medical care. They are wrong. Human relief is just as effective a stimulus as building a bridge. It puts money into the pockets of people who will spend it on goods and services.

What the country needs is productive economic activity, even if it puts food on the table of a hungry family, and the stimulus will provide it. If the Republicans have a better idea besides collapse, the country is waiting. Cataclysm may be a desirable goal for Rush Limbaugh, but Congress will find that the strategy will be little appreciated by the American people.