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HICKS: Stimulus job creation has been surprisingly small

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Mike Hicks

Earlier this month, the Obama administration released its estimate of the impact of the fiscal stimulus on job creation and retention. The estimate of roughly a million jobs created or retained caused quite a stir among critics of the stimulus.

I believe the administration’s estimates are fair and accurate. Indeed, if they have erred in their predictions, it is in understating job impacts. It is important that economists charged with forming policy preserve their analytical integrity, and this is a fine example of that. Even so, the outlook on the stimulus is not necessarily rosy. Understanding how estimates are made and what the stimulus means in the long run is not as simple as it seems.

The truth is, there are no “data” in the world that can tell you simply what is happening in the economy. Job numbers ebb and flow, industries relocate, and incomes vary across regions and groups of people for a variety of reasons. It requires analysis to understand how these interactions work.

Economists, like virtually all scientists, use mathematical models to tease out cause and effect. It is hard enough with controlled experiments. It is much more difficult if you have to rely on the real world—without controlled experiments. Economists would know a lot more about recessions if we could convince some folks to sign up for a random recession trial. (Come to think of it, California and Michigan just might be doing that for us.)

The stimulus can (and is) creating and saving jobs, even as we continue to suffer employment declines. Pure data tells all of us the world is stationary and flat. It takes a bit of math to know otherwise.

The administration’s economists rely upon models of the economy that account for stimulus spending. The administration’s estimate of a million jobs traced to the stimulus is good news, but it surely isn’t good enough news. There’s a dark cloud on the horizon.

Those million jobs weren’t enough to offset total job losses in the economy. Further, these new jobs have materialized slowly, reminding us why large-scale fiscal-stimulus efforts were largely written off two generations ago. But these observations aren’t the real problem. The concern is not how many jobs have been created, but how few.

The stimulus thus far has returned somewhere between $50 billion and $65 billion in tax relief (you all have noticed those fatter paychecks each week, right?). This alone should have created more than a half-million jobs. That means less than 10 percent of the spending (which will eventually be more than $500 billion) has hit the streets.

The recession is now over. If we continue to spend the stimulus at this rate, we have a real problem. Without any additional rebound, the stimulus alone will account for 7 million to 10 million additional jobs. That type of job creation sounds tantalizing. It is also impossible. What it will give us is inflation.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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