A no-jobs jobs bill?

It's not clear that the incentives and subsidies included in the $80 billion jobs bill will spur job growth.

Harry Hamburg/AP/File
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., accompanied by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Md., left, during a news conference on Capitol Hill on March 17 for the signing of the jobs bill. The $80 billion jobs bill stalled in the Senate last week.

Congress' effort to pass a jobs bill stalled in the Senate on Wednesday. In part, the upper chamber tied itself into Senate-like knots thanks to the usual partisan wrangling. But the proposal has also rekindled a debate over the need for more economic stimulus versus fear of rising deficits. This argument is important and healthy, but wildly overblown in the context of such a small and poorly-targeted bill.

In one corner are those liberals who argue that failure to pass this measure will send the economy spiraling into a catastrophic double-dip recession. This, they say, is what happened in the mid-1930s, when Congress tightened fiscal policy and a nascent post-Depression expansion collapsed. Don’t worry about deficits, the progressives say. There is no inflation. Treasury bond rates are at historic lows. Create jobs and stabilize the recovery, and the budget will take care of itself.

By contrast, fiscal hawks say this bill, on top of President Obama’s earlier $862 billion stimulus, is the last straw. We cannot continue to spend money we do not have without turning ourselves into Greece. And while Treasury rates may be low now, the day may come when investors lose their enthusiasm for our bonds. The economy, they say, has grown smartly for three consecutive quarters and there is no need to make an already $1.4 trillion deficit any worse.

So we invent the following bumper-sticker debate: Oppose this stimulus and you are a jobs-killing, tea party-loving, myopic deficit hawk. Support it and you are an irresponsible big spender. Both claims are fairly silly. Here’s why:

First, the bill's short-term $80 billion price tag is loose change, at least by Washington standards. It is one-tenth the size of Obama’s 2009 stimulus. And in a $14 trillion economy, its impact on the overall economy is hardly measurable. Similarly, adding another $80 billion in one-time initiatives (assuming they are one-time) to a $1.4 trillion deficit is hardly going to waken a complacent bond market.

But the argument over the total cost completely misses the real question: Will the subsidies and incentives in this bill create jobs? It is not the size that matters, but how the dollars are spent. And here, there is a strong case to be made that a lot of this bill is money wasted.

Start with the roughly $32 billion in expiring tax provisions (aka the extenders) that the bill would continue for another year (or in a few cases two). Some of my favorites: $46 million in tax subsidies for movie producers and $38 million for NASCAR racetrack owners. As I have written in the past, most of these highly targeted subsidies will do little or nothing to create new jobs. They will, however, provide a financial windfall to their recipients. The other day, Bob Bixby of the Concord Coalition had a suggestion: Kill the Extenders. That's not a bad idea.

The bill also would spend about $6 billion to delay a big cut in Medicare physician payments for another six months. Congress had been putting off the day of reckoning on this issue for 13 years. Yes, 13 years. Cutting doctors’ pay by 21 percent (which would happen in the absence of this bill) is absurd. But kicking this can down the road yet again has nothing at all to do with boosting the economy.

A handful of proposals may create--or at least save--some jobs. For instance, a measure to help states pay teachers (which may or many not end up in the final bill) would prevent some layoffs, although how many is a matter of great dispute. But most provisions could die, or be paid for, without doing any damage to the economy. It is fair to debate whether the economy needs another fiscal jolt. But for better or worse you won’t find much real stimulus in this bill.

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