UPDATE on President Obama’s Jobs Proposal – Better, But Still Weak

First an update on a post I made a few days ago. When I commented last Monday on President Obama’s jobs proposal, I was less than excited. Having read more detail of the proposal, I should correct some statements I made.  I incorrectly left the impression that the payroll tax (Social Security/Medicare tax) cut that the President was proposing was only an extension of the present year cut that is scheduled to expire December 31, 2011.

In fact, the President is proposing not only a 1 year extension of this year’s temporary payroll tax cut, but an increase in the size of that tax cut.  Estimates are that for a median household income of near $50,000, it would result in a $1,500 reduction in payroll taxes compared to not having any payroll tax cut at all. However, the existing, this-year only, payroll tax cut had already cut payroll taxes by up to $500 per household.  So of the claimed $1,500 tax cut for next year for the median household, $500 is an extension of this year’s situation and  $1000 is new stimulus.  Today’s economy is weak even with the existing temporary $500 tax cut, so extending that cut won’t improve things. It will only prevent things from deteriorating further.  In my world, simply agreeing to not put on the brakes is not the same thing as actually hitting the accelerator.

But, the proposal does contain perhaps $1000 worth of tax cut stimulus to nearly all working households. That’s perhaps $150 billion of pure, new stimulus to economy.  It’s more than I estimated on Monday, so the plan will likely have some more stimulative effects than I thought.  But how much?  Let’s do a quick “back of the envelope” type calculation.  The proposal puts $150 billion in consumers’ hands that wouldn’t have been there without it.  But for this money to generate jobs, people have to spend the money.  Simply saving the money or paying down debt won’t cut it.  That improves individual household balance sheets but it doesn’t cause any firm out there to go “oh, more business! I need to hire people!”  In normal times like the 1960’s or 1970’s people would have spent 85-90% of the tax cut.  But these aren’t normal times. We live in high debt, high debt payments, and scared-of-the-future times.  More people save in these kind of times. (paying down debt is economically the same as savings – think of your debt as a negative balance in a savings account).  Let’s assume that people spend 2/3 of the money.  Both history and theory indicate that people save more of a tax cut when they know it’s temporary, but let’s be generous/optimistic and say 2/3 gets spent.  That’s $100 billion in new spending.

Now when it gets spent, it generates business demand and jobs.  Those people get paid and then they go spend the money again – the circular flow of money in the economy.  How much?  That’s a huge controversy in empirical macroeconomics.  This is the question of what the spending multiplier is.  Estimates vary widely, although often the studies are heavily biased by ideology to begin with.  Let’s be modestly optimistic and say the multiplier is 1.5 – 2.0.  This is a relatively high estimate given recent studies as far as I know, but let’s run with it.  That means that after some months, this initial $150 billion in tax cuts becomes $100 billion in new, initial spending which ultimately increases total spending by $150-$200 billion.  Total spending is another way of saying GDP.  This puts it in the range of 1.0% to 1.5% of GDP.

There’s a rule of thumb about the relationship between changes in GDP to changes in unemployment rate. It’s called Okun’s Law.  It’s not a law so much as a statistical regularity. There are many versions, but let’s use a real simple one: each 2 percentage point change in GDP equates to a 1 percentage point change in the unemployment rate.  So if we have GDP growth increasing by 1.5% points, we can count on unemployment rate going down by 0.75 to 1.0% points.

We’re currently over 9% unemployment rate and stuck there.  I’m not real excited about a proposal that aims to reduce the unemployment rate from over 9% to maybe 8%.  We know 4-5% unemployment is possible.  We did it in 2006 even with the slow-growth policies of the Bush administration.  We did better than that under Clinton. In the 1960’s we were even below 4%.   Why are we settling for tepid responses and setting goals of only getting to 8% unemployment and then calling this “bold”?  I don’t know.  But then maybe I’m just a grumpy old man.