In recent times, Americans found myriad ways to fuel spending, even as incomes stagnated: borrowing against the once rising price of their homes and tapping plentiful credit cards. No longer. The paycheck has returned as the primary source of spending, and pay is eroding even for those who have jobs. This process is nowhere near complete, and, until it is, the economy will barely grow, if at all, and may well oscillate between sluggish growth and modest decline for the next several years until the rebalancing of the excessive debt has been completed. Until then, the private economy will be deprived of adequate profits and cash flow, and businesses will not start to hire. Nor will they race to make capital expenditures when they have vast idle capacity.
In other words, there are many more reasons today to expect the downturn to continue than to expect a turnaround. Consumer spending and residential investment could be even weaker than most estimates, and, as the level of fiscal stimulus begins its decline in the second half of 2010, we may be facing an even more difficult future.
No wonder poll after poll shows a steady erosion of confidence in the stimulus measures. One survey even showed 45 percent believe the limited results suggest they should simply be abandoned midway. The disappointment is understandable—but that would only make things worse. So what kind of second-act stimulus program should we look for? This time, it should not be an excuse to pass a lot of programs like those in the first stimulus package that do not really have the kind of multiplier effect on job creation and on economic growth that was intended. In any event, given the trends, it is absolutely critical that the Obama administration not play politics with the issue but really begin to prepare a second stimulus program, so that if the economy does take a major downturn, it will be possible this time to provide much more rapid government support to infrastructure spending that will maximize the creation of jobs. The time to get ready is now.