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Fifty Little Herbert Hoovers Watch

The Economist's free exchange:

Fifty little Hoovers, hoovering up stimulus: MATTHEW YGLESIAS makes a good point:

Reading Harold Meyerson’s column on the looming devastation of California public services was yet another reminder of the remarkable extent to which the terrible continuing economic situation has bizarrely dropped off the political agenda. Even the whole “green shoots” debate is really about whether we can expect things to be somewhat better or somewhat worse six months out from now. In either case, things really are really bad right now. And a whole bunch of states—including large ones like California and Pennsylvania—are soon to implement substantial cutbacks in services at just the time when the objective need for social services is going up.

The American economy appears to be nearing the end of contraction. That's good news, particularly when one considers that only about 10% of the funds authorised in this year's stimulus bill has been spent; the plan is only beginning to ramp up and outlays will peak in 2010. We should expect that injection to provide the economy with a nice boost at a critical time.

On the other hand, state budget policies are sharply contractionary at this point. Despite allocations of federal aid to states, services are being cut, state employees are being laid off, and taxes are being raised in order to balance the budgets of local governments constitutionally unable to run deficits. It's not at all clear that the federal stimulus will entirely compensate for state-level fiscal tightening, which means that American fiscal policy could, on net, be contractionary.

Easy money is doing its part, of course, but the bottom line is that the fiscal boost many are expecting may not actually materialise. This will end up causing a lot of human suffering, and it may make for a long and shallow recovery—or worse, a tipping back into contraction.

Nobody thinks that it's time to go back in the water yet. And we do need a bigger stimulus.