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Thursday, January 22, 2009

As everyone knows by now, our state economy is in a recession. People are feeling the pinch at home and so are retailers and manufacturers. The question we all want answered is, how do we get the economy moving again?

It helps to understand what exactly is meant by the term “recession.” The economist Jared Bernstein, who is my former boss and is now Vice President Biden’s Chief Economist, sums it up well:

Economies depend on robust demand. When folks stop buying, when investors leave the room, when governments stop building and improving public goods, growth grinds to a halt. And when that happens, the job machine stalls, unemployment rises, those with jobs work fewer hours, wages rise more slowly, and incomes decline, especially for the lowest earners and many minorities.

Lately there has been much talk of a federal stimulus plan to quickly get more money flowing in the economy. There are lots of ways to do that, but some of them are better than others. Mark Zandi from suggests the best route is to target dollars at lower and middle income households who need the cash and will quickly spend it.

In fact, he estimates the biggest “fiscal economic bank for the buck” (his phrase) comes from increasing unemployment benefits and food stamps. Spending on infrastructure would come next, followed closely by aid to state governments. By comparison, tax cuts seem like a waste of money in terms of stimulus.

When it comes to state government, economic recovery can be more difficult because most states need to balance their budgets. Basic economics says that both tax increases and spending cuts are harmful to the economy during a recession. Using our nascent Rainy Day Fund helps a little. Washington also expects federal aid for health care, economic security, and education, but there’s still a large gap.

So what do we do? Do we choose tax increases or spending cuts?

The Governor’s budget proposal comes down on one side of this question. During the election campaign last fall, she promised not to raise taxes and her budget plan for 2009-11 calls for deep spending cuts to the tune of $3.6 billion.

This is not a position backed up by economic research. Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz who is the new head of the federal Office of Management and Budget says, “Tax increases on higher-income families are the least damaging mechanism for closing state fiscal deficits in the short run.”

The Governor has also made some smart decisions to help get the economy moving. She has proposed using money from the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to temporarily increase benefits for unemployed workers. That plan does not require tax increases and puts money quickly into the economy. It also helps struggling workers. The Governor and legislative leaders have also proposed moving quickly on ready-to-go capital infrastructure improvements.

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