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Lawrence Kudlow / January 10, 2009

How Big-Government Is Obama?

Obama spoke Thursday at George Mason University about his American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan – a.k.a. the stimulus package. There’s an interesting section that would warm the heart of John Maynard Keynes. It goes like this:

“It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe.”

Well, 28 years ago Ronald Reagan said government was the problem, not the solution. Dealing with a bad recession like this one, the Gipper lowered taxes and domestic spending. Obama on the other hand has offered an $800 billion package, with plenty of infrastructure spending that alleges to create 3 million jobs.

Nobody really believes infrastructure spending will end the recession or create permanent new jobs. However, it’s interesting just how much the Obama plan has changed since the election. The size has been roughly constant. But the mix of tax cuts and spending increases is now totally different.

Instead of $100 billion worth of tax credits, there are now $300 billion worth of tax cuts. This includes a big new piece for business, more cash-expensing for small-business investment and a restoration of the five-year tax-loss carry-back, which will especially help banks and homebuilders. It might even result in tax refunds for businesses, and might also allow banks to rid themselves of toxic assets, since the losses will now be spread over many years.

So what we have is an $800 billion stimulus package with $300 billion of so-called tax cuts, which could infer less spending than before – maybe only $500 billion worth.

Obama’s economic advisers are bragging to me about their new tax-cut package. They say they’re very pro-growth. And you know what? I acknowledge it. People like Larry Summers, Austan Goolsbee, Christy Romer and Tim Geithner are no left-wing big-government whackos. They may not be hard-core supply-siders. But in terms of the economics profession, I would call them center-right.

And they absolutely understand the importance of private business and investment in the job-creating economic-growth process. And I think their views are the main reason for the reshaping of the Obama package between the campaign trail and the eve of inauguration.

The problem is that they’re not reducing marginal tax rates on large and small businesses or individuals. Their tax credits will be two year’s worth, not permanent. There will be no incentive effects to maximize growth. And many of the tax cuts are refundable credits, which really are a form of government spending.

So it’s not a supply-side package. However, I’ve really never met a tax cut I didn’t like. And any tax cut is better than a spending increase, since private companies and individuals will at least get the money instead of government.

This is the interesting part of the Obama plan. Somewhere in there the tax cuts will have a small positive economic effect. I would have designed it differently, but then again Team Obama won the election. I guess I could say it could have been worse.

Of course, Team Obama will have to contend with the sticker shock of a $1.2 trillion deficit for 2009, just printed by the Congressional Budget Office. And that’s before the Obama stimulus plan. But I don’t think Republicans really have a leg to stand on with the deficit argument – or for that matter the spending argument.

Yes, Obama is raising the ante, and the new numbers are just about over the edge. But a lot of that new deficit is TARP money that should be scored as investment – not real spending. And in view of all the economic pessimism out there, I doubt if the public is very worried about deficits.

What’s most regrettable is that congressional Republicans have yet to make the alternative case. They haven’t pressed for marginal tax-rate cuts as an option to Obama’s credits. So far, the GOP is me-too. They’ve offered an echo instead of a choice.

Meanwhile, polls now say the public favors Obama’s plan by 55 percent to 65 percent. His personal approval rating is even higher. And he’s being politically astute by reaching out to Republicans. He has virtually removed partisan rhetoric. Simply put, Obama is in the driver’s seat right now.

Sure, the Democratic Congress may mangle Obama’s plan. They might even repeal the Bush tax cuts this year. So there is considerable uncertainty about the details of the final package. But I must say, a crafty Obama is doing his best top employ his version of the Reagan tax-cut plan. Obama talks big government. But so far his program actually reduces the government-spending share and increases the private tax-cut share.

Very interesting.


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