Monday, February 9, 2009

The Smartest Spending of All

So why not boost spending with $2000 gift card for each American?

Here are the most common objections and questions I've received about my article in this weekend's Washington Post:

  - Didn't spending get us into this mess? We need jobs, not cash!

We do need jobs, and the gift card helps us get there, during the months that job programs get underway. This week and next, there's only one thing that keeps businesses from folding, and that's consumer demand.

To help in the short-term, the Senate has proposed nothing but tax cuts, and that's disingenuous. While some other problems may be averted with appropriate breaks, like expanding exemptions from the Alternative Minimum Tax, we shouldn't confuse those with immediate stimulus.

When your house is on fire, there are things to do before choosing a new sprinkler system. The 600,000 jobs lost last month represent only one sixth of the the total losses since the start of the recession. We need relief soon, while all other plans take root.

The $2,000 gift card isn't a full solution, but it's a strong tool we can put in the hands of every American right now, this week.

   - What if I just save the money?

Fine. If people save every penny of it, the program carries no cost: $2,000 goes to you, then back to the government years later. Even the interest goes to you and back. The Treasuries used to finance our debt are sold overwhelmingly to Americans. Despite the huge foreign reserves of Japan and China, we borrow mainly from ourselves.

But while rebate checks were saved at too high a rate to help boost the economy, the American Gift Card can do better, as it never sits in a bank. In our house, grapes get eaten a lot faster when they're out on a plate than when they sit in the bottom drawer of the 'fridge.

   - Won't the money just go to China?

Amazing at it seems, given that half the things on my desk were made in China, well over 80% of dollars are spent on domestic goods and services. Even without restrictions on the card, it really will help Americans.

   - Why not $2 million, so we're all rich?

$2000 is a good figure: $200 is too little and $20,000 is excessive. It's also the right amount to replace the $275 billion in proposed corporate and other tax cuts, some of which have merit but none of which have a stimulus effect with the promised speed.

$2000 per taxpayer provides a solid short-term stimulus while other programs begin, even though the mere issuing of a card doesn't create wealth. It is indeed money we're borrowing from ourselves, and for these next few months, that's a good thing. While there may be benefits to a higher rate of saving in America over the long term, the sudden drop in spending is causing substantial pain.

We can start cheering about reduced consumption after people stop losing their jobs.

- Can't we keep the government from telling us what to do or giving handouts?

Unlike other spending projects, the Gift Card program doesn't rely on the government to decide which business or industry should receive the money. You do.

There's no handout. Stores still have to attract your business if they want a boost in their bottom line. The difference between this an industry bailout is that you get to decide where the money goes.

And that's the smartest spending of all.


  1. >well over 80% of dollars are spent on domestic goods and especially services

    Does that count dollars going to Best Buy to purchase a TV made in Taiwan?

  2. "Does that count dollars going to Best Buy to purchase a TV made in Taiwan?"

    No. Americans consume mostly their own goods and services, all but $1.3 trillion worth of the more than $14 trillion we produce each year.

    Part of the reason that's unintuitive is because much of our money goes to services. We pay rent (or mortgage) each month, plus phone bills and the tab for a night out. The stuff sitting in our homes may be a smaller portion, but it's more visible.