What Is Real Stimulus and What Isn't?

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis

President Barack Obama meets with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in the Oval Office

It's hard to take Republican leaders too seriously when they criticize recovery plans for the economy; it's sort of like those geese criticizing evacuation plans for US Airways Flight 1549. Their critiques look even goofier when you see their alternatives. They warn that President Barack Obama's stimulus package will explode the debt — and so they want to make President Bush's debt-exploding tax cuts permanent. They say Democratic spending plans are full of pork — then they propose an extra $24 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal equivalent of Oscar Meyer. Let's just say their idea bank could use a bailout.

But there are more serious critiques of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act from more serious critics. The most compelling critique — offered by Clinton Administration budget chief Alice Rivkin and Democratic Senator Ben Nelson as well as principled conservatives like New York Times columnist David Brooks and Reagan Administration economics adviser Martin Feldstein — is that an $800 billion stimulus package ought to be all about stimulus. They're not the Hooverish partisans who are whining that the package has turned into a "spending plan," as if government spending were a preposterous strategy for jump-starting the economy. They're concerned with how the money would be spent. They're O.K. with a short-term injection of cash, but they don't think this is the time for long-term government investments. They want to focus on fighting the recession, and they don't see Pell grants, renewable energy subsidies, health-care technology and Head Start — much less a beautification of the Mall, contraception for low-income women or additional funding for the arts — as the best way to do that. "Many of them are worthy [programs], but we can have that debate another day," Brooks says. (See pictures of Obama's historic Inauguration.)

It's a legitimate point. It really does matter how the money is spent. But actually, we had that debate in November, and as the President himself reportedly said at a bipartisan White House meeting last week, Obama won.

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