When Paul Ryan falsely went after the stimulus package as an orgy of corruption and cronyism, I joked on Twitter that this was probably the last time you’ll hear about the stimulus in the next two weeks, Republican or Democratic. Time’s Michael Grunwald has written a highly-regarded book about the stimulus that I have yet to crack, which demystifies a lot about the law. But the real problem is the nature of this secrecy itself. This is a law that deliberately tried to hide its main tangible benefit, based on some questionable behavioral science, by taking a few dollars less out of weekly paychecks through lowering withholding instead of handing people $500. And that’s a perfect metaphor for the package itself. This had some benefits, according to the framers – hiding the tax cut increased the propensity to spend, folding some other spending into existing programs cut down on fraud and got the money out more quickly. But it made the stimulus a phantom program, one that, three-plus years later, we don’t remember for generating much in the way of economic activity, even though it did. There’s also the issue of the famous line from Omar, “If you strike at the king, you best not miss.” If you create a bill to generate a recovery, it had better actually generate a recovery. We’ve learned by now that just stopping something worse from happening economically isn’t the kind of thing you can sell to the public very easily. Certainly not when you decide to stop talking about it.
With that context, this is emblematic of how the stimulus failed as a political matter even if you believe it succeeded as a policy matter.
The Huffington Post reached out to a dozen stimulus recipients in the Tampa area near the Republican convention to see how the bill affected them. Of those who agreed to talk about it, only one initially knew that they’d received any stimulus money.
Jay Catalani didn’t know the $22,550 contract he received to electrify water meters inside veteran cemeteries throughout Florida came from the government.
“I had no idea. I was a subcontractor bidding a job through another company,” Catalani said. “My check didn’t come from the government. It came from the company we were working for.” […]
Catalani initially denied that his company benefited from the government spending, but changed his tune after HuffPost told him the precise amount of the contract as listed on Recovery.gov.
“Nobody explained the stimulus and nobody explained the health care bill,” Catalani said. “It should have been just literally peeled through like an onion and it wasn’t.”
And yet, the stimulus has had a lasting impact on Catalani’s company, which now has 12 workers. “I ended up adding two employees,” he said. “I didn’t know it was a stimulus, but it stimulated my company. And I still have them today. Even though it was only $20,000, but … we were right on the cusp of, ‘Hey, should we bring more people on or shouldn’t we?’ We brought two guys on and ended up keeping those two people.”
Communicating in politics isn’t trivial. I know it’s de rigueur to laugh at the President for saying his biggest problem was not telling a story about his policies. And I don’t think it was the biggest problem (I’ll go with failing to defend the rule of law and perpetuating in the accountability space what we see in the economic space, a maelstrom of inequality). But at some level, it’s the job of a political party to articulate to the public the import of their actions and their tangible benefits. I don’t buy this idea that everyone “was moving so fast” that the communications channel couldn’t be use. And it’s not like you were going to talk the nation out of 8% unemployment. A set of policies appropriate to the task that created escape velocity in the economy would have worked more than talking about what did get provided. You wouldn’t have to talk as much then.
The problem comes in leaving these programs orphaned, rhetorically speaking. As well as designing them so nobody knew where the government ended and the private company began. “Recovery Act grant” was not turned into a household word. And we see this problem across the gamut of policies in the Obama age. The government program to aid borrowers in housing becomes you haggling with your servicer over the seventh time they lost your paperwork. The socialist health care law becomes first nothing of tangible benefit, then a website where you decide between Aetna or UnitedHealth. The stimulus becomes a check from a company so the recipient can brim at their own self-reliance and hard work that helped them achieve without the oppressive hand of government.
Sometimes a political faction has to tell a story to be effective.