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Stimulus As Engineering Problem, Cont'd.

Chait's post on the number of jobs the stimulus is likely to create gets right at the point I was making yesterday, about this really being a technical debate rather than a political one. The GOP and the Senate moderates tried to cast the debate as a battle of political philosophies--Democrats are for big-government, Republicans are for small government, centrists are for moderation above all else. But this wasn't a debate about philosophies. It was a debate about the number of jobs we wanted to create. The House version of the bill was likely to create on the order of 3.5 million jobs. The compromise is likely to create more like 2.5 million jobs. So what Republicans and centrists were really saying was that they'd prefer a million fewer jobs (at least), which is certifiably insane. The engineers told us what our options were, and the centrists and Republicans picked the one entailing fewer jobs.  

To return to my epidemic analogy from yesterday, it's as if the doctors told us we could either save 3.5 million lives or 2.5 million lives, and the centrists said "2.5 million sounds good" while the GOP said "boo, big government."

Update: The Economist's blog complains that we don't in fact have a very good idea of how many jobs the bill will create. That's fair enough--there's cetainly a difference of opinion among economists, and within them for that matter. (Most economists prefer to give a range rather than a specific number.) I guess what I'd say is I'm not wedded to any particular number. The point is just that there's a pretty vast consensus among trained, professional economists that if you get a certain amount of money to the right people (generally lower-income and cash-strapped people) in the right way (hiring them, giving them unemployment benefits, cutting their taxes) you will stimulate economic activity. And that if you get more money to more of the right people in the right way, you'll generate even more economic activity. (This doesn't continue ad infinitum, but it does for a while...)

I don't think it's controversial to conclude that, in the stimulus debate, the centrists chose a lower level of economic activity than the Democrats, and the Republicans chose a lower level than the centrists. The particular numbers strike me as less important than the relative differences, which we can speak about with far greater confidence.

--Noam Scheiber