Friday, February 6, 2009

"Good" != "Belongs in Stimulus"

I'm seeing a lot of wailing and moaning about proposed cuts to the stimulus package, and it's starting to get ridiculous. "Oh, you can't exclude education! It's vital to our future!" "Oh, you can't cut out health programs for the poor, we need those!" Yeah, we do need those things, and you know what? We'll get those things. I think the people complaining just don't understand that the stimulus package is not the same as the federal budget. There is still plenty of room and (perhaps less than plenty of) money for these programs -- but in the regular budget, not in this separate spending bill. Just because they're important doesn't mean they have to be pushed through on an emergency basis. Nobody's starving because they didn't get money from the stimulus bill, they're just going to have to wait for the normal budget. And half the things people are screaming about aren't even remotely relevant to the purpose of the bill: I'm a strong supporter of NASA, but it doesn't bother me that they're probably not going to get any extra money in this bill. NASA itself isn't getting cut here, they're just not getting a bonus, because that bonus wouldn't be an immediate stimulant to the economy.

In a way, the problem is that Obama was a little too responsible when planning this bill. He talked a lot about spending on projects to build infrastructure. But building infrastructure is not the point of the bill -- it's just a side benefit, to help alleviate the long-term problems with spending this much money. The direct benefits are necessarily short term. It would be a BAD thing to fund NASA or Head Start or other necessary programs through a one-time funding bill like this, because all those people would have to be laid off next year. It's far, far better to pay for those things (even new projects) in the regular budget, so that you can plan to continue them after this year. I'm not sure I like using it for public transportation -- I'm a strong supporter of public transportation, but once the stimulus money runs out and we're all used to taking the bus... where do the funds to keep the buses running come from? (And do NOT start talking to me about writing long-term funding into the stimulus bill, as that would be not merely missing the point, but aggressively so)

This stimulus package is turning into the Democratic Party's PATRIOT Act -- they're using a crisis to push through a lot of stuff that might be good for the country, but is not directly related to the crisis at hand. And as you recall, the PATRIOT Act turned into a focus for anger and resentment against the Bush administration. No, the analogy isn't perfect: Obama has been good about being willing to negotiate, and despite some somewhat shrill "This has to be done quickly!" rhetoric, has appeared to be reasonably willing to tolerate delay in the name of getting it right. But it's starting to look very similar.


  1. I think the people complaining just don't understand that the stimulus package is not the same as the federal budget.

    This has been annoying me, too.

    NSF was (at least at one point) in line for a hell of a lot of money in this thing. Like, 50% of our total budget over again. And of course you never want to say no to free money that might let you do your mission better for a time. But the problem you raise with the buses is a problem for science, too: you spend a lot of money to train people, and then those people can't find jobs. I mean, this was a problem when NIH's budget doubled over *five* years and then merely stopped increasing: all these biomedical scientists were created that then became bitter postdocs who couldn't find faculty gigs, because the number of university posts hadn't increased.

    I think the crux is -- what is a ginormous short-term injection of money going to do in a field where the important goals really are long-term, and where everybody is permanently dependent on government financing anyway? You might say this applies to programs like Head Start, too.

  2. If they really want to use the stimulus money for scientific research, what they ought to do is hand the NSF (or NIH or DARPA or NASA or whoever) a large check and specific instruction, "Go through your existing grants and amend them to increase the equipment and domestic travel budget for this year only." I have never known a research group that didn't have a wish list somewhere, or a handful of conferences that they'd like to attend but didn't get a paper out for.

    Of course, spending on research grants is never going to be a great stimulus, for the simple reason that the universities doing the research take huge chunks out of it for "support" and then sit on that money.

  3. I think the focus instead, if we get the money, will be to A) fund all of our leftover fundable grants from this year, and B) to emphasize the pieces of those grants that constitute employment.

    But that does bring up the question -- what is really the best way to put money in consumers' pockets? Is it to hire individuals as postdocs? Or to provide a bump to manufacturing? Somehow it seems incorrect to me that one more sale valued at $70,000 (rough postdoc salary+benefits+indirects) would get translated into one more job with $70,000 worth of salary/benefits/etc -- so that would seem to suggest direct employment is better. But then, postdocking is a very temporary way to make a living, which is why I'm concerned in the first place. I don't know. I'm the wrong kind of social scientist.

  4. Really, the best way to put money into consumers' pockets is to simply put it there -- mail out checks. For this price they could give each and every person in the US over $2500. The last stimulus check, a lot of people simply saved, but that would be a good thing this time around given that we're also dealing with bank solvency issues and a credit crunch.

    The big problem is that this is just straight-up going into debt with no investment whatsoever. At some point, no matter what the money is spent on, it'll have to be paid back. Borrowing to build roads or other infrastructure is one thing. Borrowing it not knowing how it will be spent seems... irresponsible. And while I'm not a fan of economic protectionism, it would be a shame if a lot of our borrowed stimulus money went toward cheap plastic crap from China, which is not inconceivable for an amount in the middle ground between "can purchase a car" and "can eat out a few times"

    As for hiring vs purchase, I was thinking that the amounts would be more likely to be a few thousand per grant, spread out over a lot more fields and locations. It takes a while to get started on a new grant, especially when you weren't expecting it, and new grants are very, very inefficient in this respect: between 40-60% of any given grant goes straight to the school, some additional amount goes to augment the PI's salary, just as much goes to the school through tuition if the grant funds students (that's in addition to the cash taken off the top) and a fair amount is set aside to pay for equipment, travel, &c. Multi-year grants are worse, if the money for multiple years' worth of salary, travel, and equipment is set aside at once. You'd be spending a few hundred thousand dollars for every new $70k job.

    Besides, if you directly fund postdocs, you're keeping them in academia at a time when there's not much room for advancement. If you indirectly fund the companies that hire PhDs to produce equipment, you might give them an avenue of escape.

  5. One argument I heard on the radio was that the "rebate" being in the form of lowered taxes would be more likely to encourage spending -- if you've got an extra $70 a month, say, you might use it to buy food or shoes or something, because it's income, as opposed to windfall. (I could be misremembering; it was a week ago, and I was trying to drive at the time.)

    Stimulus aid going to state governments is good, argues someone much wiser than I. I can say that if NC got money, fewer people's jobs would be at risk, most likely. The county government that I work for has requested that all departments return 10% of their budget for FY 08-09, and to decrease their FY 09-10 budgets by 10% as well. The county manager said that he couldn't promise there won't be layoffs, and I can't help thinking that if we had some more money, the budget reductions wouldn't include layoffs.

  6. I can get behind it going to the state governments -- right now a lot of states have balanced budget amendments, which mean that as the economy tanks they have to either raise taxes or lay people off.

    Lowered taxes is something that keeps coming up (mainly because certain people ALWAYS want to lower taxes, and will take any excuse: economy doing well? lower taxes! economy doing poorly? lower taxes!) I'm all for paying less tax, but I always wonder when that will make an impact on my pocket. Will every employer immediately change the deductions? Will it be retroactive so that I get a bit more money in April, or will it wait until next year?