Amid much fanfare (and followed by much outrage once people saw what was in it), Congress passed a stimulus bill that extended unemployment benefits and provided for $600 Economic Impact Payments for each person subject to some income qualifications.
My Forbes colleague Lisa Rowan tells you Everything You Need to Know about the new round of Economic Impact Payments. Here are a few things you might not need to know or even want to know about the stimulus package but that I think you should know.
The Economic Impact Payments can Help People Manage Cash Flows in an Uncertain Time. Responses to the Covid pandemic (like lockdowns) have literally forced a lot of firms out of business and a lot of workers out of work, and its hard to pay your bills when you dont have income. Putting everything on a credit card for almost a year is one solution, but its certainly not an attractive one (hence the quotation marks). The EIPs shift peoples tax liability from 2020-21 to some point in the future and make it easier for them to pay the bills in the short run.
Its not really a stimulus. I should just get used to the fact that stimulus is now journalistic and social media shorthand for any time Congress directs the Treasury to write a lot of checks. If lockdowns, distancing protocols, and other restrictions are shutting down big chunks of the economy, then theres not much room to expand production by putting more money in consumers hands. Aggregate supply shocks rather than aggregate demand shocks are the real problem.
Even if its a stimulus, it might not stimulate much. Theres an idea in economics called Ricardian Equivalence that explains why fiscal policy isnt likely to be as effective as we might think. Its named after David Ricardo, a 19th century economist who also explained the law of comparative advantage.
Congress conducts expansionary fiscal policy by cutting taxes or increasing government spending. Taxpayers, however, know that an increase in the budget deficit today will require higher taxes tomorrow. If they act in accordance with something called Ricardian equivalence, they save todays tax cuts or transfer payments in anticipation of tomorrows tax increase. Not everyone does this, of course, but it limits what the government can do with fiscal policy. In a study of what people did with their CARES Act stimulus payments, economists Olivier Coibion, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, and Michael Weber explained that people used about 30% of their stimulus checks to pay down debt, saved another 30%, and spent 40%.
I suspect a graduate student somewhere started a dissertation on Ricardian equivalence and Economic Impact Payments not long after Congress passed the package. If youre a graduate student looking for a dissertation topic, might I suggest Ricardian Equivalence and Fiscal Policy: Evidence from 2020 Covid Pandemic Stimulus Payments?
Note: The end of this article disappeared somewhere in the editing-and-saving process, so the following was added on December 29, 2020.
The Stimulus Showed Us How Politics Works. I was about to write politics at its worst, but this wasnt really politics at its best or worst. It was just politics. We shouldnt be surprised that what ultimately emerged was a dogs breakfast of giveaways for special interests. Thats the nature of the political beast. Contrary to what a protest sign might have told you, the system is not broken. Contrary to what another protest sign might have told you, the system was not designed this way. The outcomes we get, to borrow from the Scottish Enlightenments Adam Ferguson, are the products of human action even though they are not the product of human design. As Donald Boudreaux once put it, If Rents Can Be Created, They Will be Sought. As we continue to cede power to enormous rent-creating operations called governments, we shouldnt be surprised by the results.