The polarized rhetoric of the 2012 election cycle presents voters with a false choice of whether the government can create jobs or should just get out of the way. The real debate should be about which policies work and which don’t.
I spent three years reporting on the $840 billion stimulus plan that the Obama administration pushed through Congress in 2009. My conclusion: government can create jobs — it just doesn’t often do it well.
The stimulus — a historic package of tax cuts, safety-net spending, infrastructure projects and green-energy investments — certainly did a lot of good. As the economists Alan S. Blinder and Mark Zandi have noted, it’s one of the key reasons the unemployment rate isn’t in double digits now.
But the stimulus ultimately failed to bring about a strong, sustainable recovery. Money was spread far and wide rather than dedicated to programs with the most bang for the buck. “Shovel-ready” projects, those that would put people to work right away, took too long to break ground. Investments in worthwhile long-term projects, on the other hand, were often rushed to meet arbitrary deadlines, and the resulting shoddy outcomes tarnished the projects’ image.
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