I watched the president’s jobs speech on Thursday night, and there was a lot in there that I liked. I have my doubts about how much will be put into action, but the ideas seemed mostly sound. It put me in mind, though, of just how difficult legislating economic recovery can be; governments seem to fail at it a lot more than they succeed.
I used to drive through downtown Hartford on I-91 every day when I was in my teens, and every day I’d pass by a parked trailer which read: “The New Connecticut: Jobs are our #1 Priority!” It was sitting in a vacant lot near the Colt building, a relic of some failed Weicker administration initiative, surrounded by wreckage and despair. It stayed there for years as the state struggled to get out of the economic pit of the early 1990s. The trailer finally vanished during the late 1990s, when the state’s fortunes picked up again.
Economic stimulus is a tricky business. What makes it more difficult and confusing is the fact that there’s so much disagreement on how best to do it. Should we be cutting taxes, relaxing regulations, investing in public works, extending unemployment benefits, or something entirely different? Then there’s the important question of whether any of these plans can really stimulate the economy out of recession. Like everything in economics it depends upon whom you ask, and what metrics for success you use. Economics isn’t so much a science as it is a massive guessing game. There is no single simple solution to complex economic problems, no matter how much ideologues wish there was. For example, if low tax rates stimulate the economy, why hasn’t the extension of the Bush tax cuts led to increased hiring? And if infrastructure spending is the key, why wasn’t the 2009 stimulus more effective? Were the tax cuts/the stimulus the wrong direction, or were they not large enough? There’s not a lot of agreement.
No matter what you believe, the sobering truth is that there are limits to what government can do to fix our current economic problems. Still, Americans of all political stripes look to the government —not the private sector — to find a solution. This kind of economic stewardship is an essential function of government in the modern age, and governments rise and fall based on their perceived economic performance. So what can government do if there isn’t a magic, easy fix and the solutions available might not help much?
Absent nihilist views like those of 2nd Congressional District candidate Rep. Chris Coutu (R-Norwich), who recently said in an email to supporters that “Washington has never created a job — it only destroys them,” (which is an odd view in a district containing the Groton sub base). Despite Coutu’s campaign rhetoric, politicians believe that they can and must help to create what jobs they can. This is the challenge facing both Congress and an upcoming special session of Connecticut’s legislature right now: how do we inject money into the economy in an effective, sensible way?
We should pass common-sense economic stimulus that ends up leaving America and Connecticut better than we found them. If we’re going to have stimulus spending, the money should do good things like give people jobs for a while and build what the country and the state need. President Obama has proposed infrastructure improvements as stimulus, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy already has shown that he’s willing to invest bond money in big projects that have the potential to make Connecticut more competitive and livable in the future.
The Hartford-New Britain Busway, improvements at UConn Health Center, and commuter rail here in the Connecticut River Valley are good examples of stimulus that make sense. People will have jobs building them, and we will have better transit and a vastly improved biotechnology sector when they are completed. Are these projects a cure-all? Are they perfect? No. But if we can create a legacy for the future while employing state residents and companies to build it, we’ll have accomplished something worthwhile. Even if you believe that government can’t create a job, it most certainly can build a hospital or lay track.
This is the difference between words and action. We can just be an empty trailer, full of words and promise but little else, or we can do things that, whether they succeed at jumpstarting the economy in the short term, leave something lasting behind.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.