Thursday, September 15, 2011

One Job Saved?

Obama's much-hyped speech outlining the "American Jobs Act" did not seem to resonate with anyone except this guy and this guy on YouTube. His cheerleaders on the political left questioned why Obama would rely so heavily on tax cuts, given the "obstructionist" bent of Congressional Republicans. His critics on the political right questioned why another round of temporary stimulus proposals would translate into net, long-term employment gains.

Various observers suggested that Obama's speech was primarily intended to launch his 2012 election campaign. He framed the stimulus proposal as a "silver bullet" that would create millions of jobs and reduce unemployment. A cynic would argue that he is mainly trying to save one job: his own.

The total cost of the new stimulus proposals is estimated to be $447 billion. How would that get "spread around"?

[1] The proposal would pump $175 billion into the private economy by cutting employee payroll taxes in half in 2012. This measure should be politically popular, because most working Americans will benefit, temporarily, from the payroll tax holiday. But we've been down this path before. Like a night of hard drinking, a temporary stimulus might be fun while it lasts. But the next day, or the next year, we'll wake up with a hangover. One "temporary" stimulus leads to the next (the "hair of the dog") and the next, and the next. President Obama (the politician) is perfectly happy to kick the can down the road. The rest of us see a looming budget crisis and desire a permanent improvement in the conditions to economic growth.

[2] The proposal has $62 billion in targeted spending intended to help the long-term unemployed. Most of that ($54 billion) involves a series of fuzzy changes to the unemployment insurance system, including a $5 billion "pathways back to work fund." Although not broken out, I'm guessing that a big chunk of the other $49 billion simply represents an extension of unemployment assistance.

The $62 billion also includes a tax credit of up to $4,000 for hiring workers who have been looking for a job over six months (projected cost of $8 billion). Although the price tag is low, this type of credit is frustrating tax policy at its worst. Very few (if any) managers or business owners would hire new employees for a $4,000 (or smaller) credit. The credit would primarily be a windfall to businesses that were otherwise intending to hire employees (so no stimulative impact). It would create an additional audit burden for the IRS, which is already overwhelmed by new responsibilities enforcing social programs. As such, it virtually invites fraud and abuse (which plagues all these ill-conceived stimulus efforts). Perversely, it does not reward employers that have struggled to retain employees during the Great Recession.

[3] The proposal includes $140 billion in "stimulus" measures, including $35 billion for "teacher rehiring" ($30 billion) and "first responders" ($5 billion), $30 billion for "modernizing schools," $50 billion for "immediate surface transportation," a $10 billion "national infrastructure bank" and $15 billion for "neighborhood stabilization."

The $50 billion in transportation spending is infrastructure spending that should be part of the regular Congressional budgeting process. We need first-class infrastructure if we are to remain a first-class global economic competitor. The funding mechanism should be part of the regular Congressional budgeting process.

The state grants for "rehiring" and "modernizing schools" represents a bail out for undisciplined state governments. State governments do not need federal funding to address local education and security objectives. They need to prioritize state and local spending on education and security over other spending measures. For example, if a state legislature cannot adequately fund teaching salaries, the state could impose cuts on other state employees (or other spending programs) and allocate the "savings" to the teachers.

[4] Finally, the proposal involves $65 billion in payroll tax cuts for employers (and $5 billion to extend 100% bonus depreciation into 2012). The main thrust of the proposal involves: a cut in the "employer portion" of the payroll tax from 6.2% to 3.1% in 2012; and a full payroll tax holiday for any expansion of payroll up to $50 million above the prior year. These proposals suffer from the same defects as the employee payroll tax cut and the $4,000 hiring tax credit. They are short-term in nature, are unlikely to "stimulate" hiring, and would primarily result in windfalls for businesses in growth mode.

President Obama's stimulus plan (ahem, "jobs bill") may save one job and get him re-elected. But its mix of short-term incentives and bad tax policy measures has failed before. Our political leaders should be focused on regulatory and tax reforms that will encourage private business investment and result in long-term employment opportunities. Short-term stimuli may appeal to a sitting President, but the rest of us will have to live with the hangover.

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