The recovery from the Great Recession has been slow and unsteady. Two years after unemployment peaked at 10.1%, it still remains over 9%, in contrast to the under 5% in 2007. GDP has grown very slowly during the past year, and is now more than 10% below its potential level. President Obama is rightly concerned about the large number of Americans who are unemployed, especially the longer term unemployed-those who have been without jobs for over six months. How successful will his proposed American Jobs Act be in getting the economy moving forward at a much faster clip?
Boiled down to its essentials, the proposed Jobs Act is a second stimulus package since most of the spending is supposed to take place soon (before the end of 2012), while it will be financed over the next ten years in ways that are unclear. At an estimated approximately $450 billion, this package is much smaller than the first stimulus package in 2009 that cost about $800 billion. The proposed structure is better than the first one since it relies more on tax cuts and direct subsidies to households: about 2/3 of the proposed spending comes from a temporary cut in (payroll) taxes and increases in benefits to the long term unemployed.
I am less negative on the extension of unemployment benefits than is Posner. I agree it will encourage some of the longer term unemployed to stop searching for jobs since they could then receive these extended benefits. On the other hand, an extension helps insure workers against long-term unemployment, which is the most difficult form of unemployment to finance out of own savings and borrowing. In an economy with a very slow recovery, extending unemployment benefits tailored to long-term unemployment may be sensible, although it is not an easy call.
The cut in payroll taxes is supposed to have two positive effects on the economy. It would temporarily reduce the cost of labor to companies and thereby encourage them to hire more workers, and it would increase the spending of workers through increasing their take home pay. Such temporary cuts in wage costs to employers will increase employment only a little, and it will be mainly for low skilled low wage jobs that can be easily eliminated after the cuts expire. Since spending by households responds much more to their long term income prospects than to short run changes in their incomes, households would tend to save rather than spend most of their higher incomes due to a temporary cut in social security taxes. Therefore, the employment bang for the buck will be small per dollar of tax cut.
Further lowering, and possibly reversing the sign, of any positive stimulus to the economy from a temporary tax cut and extension of unemployment benefits is that they must eventually be paid for: either through future higher taxes, lower government spending, or greater inflation (the inflation “tax” in the language of economists). These effects may not be fully anticipated, but surely businessmen and households who are making long-term investments will pay attention to future taxes and future government spending as well as to their present levels.
Most of the remainder of the president’s jobs plan is the $90 billion that will help finance infrastructure projects. While many infrastructure projects in the US might well have high benefit/cost ratios, it is doubtful whether these will be the projects selected by the political process. The president was well aware of this in his speech when he said he wanted “no more bridges to nowhere”, but I see no reason why this time will be different than much of America’s recent history on federal-supported infrastructure projects.
This recovery has been so slow in good part because small and large businesses are reluctant to hire workers for the long term and to invest in durable physical capital since they are concerned over the uncertainty and level of the long-term taxing, regulatory, and fiscal situation of the United States. The president partly addressed these concerns by calling for passage of the stalled free trade acts with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea, supporting patent reform, and advocating lower taxes on corporations. At the same time, however, he also raised concerns about the future economic environment by his proposed sizable increase in federal spending that would further weaken the fiscal position of the federal government.
The net effect on the short and long term health of the economy will depend on whether Congress supports those aspects that will improve the environment faced by households and businesses rather than the more prominent proposals that are likely to further weaken the economy.