It’s done: President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, into law last week. But this doesn’t mean Uncle Sam is coming to the rescue. Instead, taxpayers are again getting fleeced to fund Democrats’ allies. The ARPA isn’t about economics. It’s about politics.
The law has little to do with the pandemic. Bailouts for long-insolvent pensions and fiscally irresponsible local governments won’t help combat the virus. Instead, the law is a left-wing wish list, rammed through under the pretext of boosting the economy.
As an economist, I can’t let stand the claim that we need the ARPA’s spending injection for the economy to recover. Contrary to its defenders, our current economic problems have little to do with anemic spending.
The performance of the economy depends on both the supply side and the demand side. The supply side has to do with the availability of labor, capital and natural resources, as well as the technology we use to transform those inputs into valuable outputs. The demand side has to do with the flow of money throughout the economy. In the long run, total spending on goods and services has little effect on economic productivity. Workers and machines make things; green pieces of paper don’t. Higher spending doesn’t lead to greater productivity. But in the short run, spending matters quite a bit. A disruption in spending throws a wrench in the gears of the economy. Given enough time, this will sort itself out. But it would be nice if we could prevent demand-side disruptions from causing even temporary harm.
What did Covid do to the economy? The virus was a negative shock to both the supply and demand sides. In terms of supply, the combination of involuntary lockdowns and voluntary caution reduced the inputs, especially labor, offered for production. In terms of demand, the flight to liquidity in financial markets represented a break in investment patterns, while consumers scaled back on purchases.
Both supply and demand problems plagued the economy last spring, but only the former persist. Last year’s Covid relief packages put plenty of money into consumers’ pockets. In fact, households are awash in cash. Private savings rates are about as high as ever. The problem isn’t a lack of purchasing power, but a supply-side bottleneck: Many business restrictions remain in force, and the labor force is limited by the pace of the vaccine rollout. To fix this, it is reasonable to dedicate federal resources to increase vaccine production and distribution. ARPA does a little of this, devoting $16 billion to vaccine distribution and another $50 billion to virus testing and contact tracing. But this is far from satisfactory, given its $1.9 trillion total.
Spending packages such as ARPA can’t fix supply-side problems. Since the economy no longer suffers a demand shortfall, the main effect of the law will be to redistribute resources from productive, market-driven activities to unproductive, politically driven ones. Don’t listen to the Democratic spin doctors: This bill was never intended to jump-start the economy. It was intended to reward the left’s political clients, such as teachers unions and blue-state public employees. Congressional Democrats are buying public support by spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need.
ARPA is bad as a Covid countermeasure and worse as a stimulus package. When voters next get to the polls, they should hold Democrats accountable for trying to pass off political patronage as economic relief.