Despite the bipartisan support for the rebate, few economists have supported the idea. They note that we have tried rebates in the past — most recently in 2001 — and there is no evidence that they have meaningfully stimulated either consumption or growth. By and large, people saved the money they received or paid bills (which is the same thing); very few used their rebates to increase spending. The true reason why the current rebate has been so popular in Washington is that giving away free money in an election year is good for politicians of both parties
Bruce updates that old discussion noting what has changed in terms of the economic picture and proposes an alternative means for using fiscal stimulus:
But in the almost six weeks since the rebate legislation was signed into law, the economic situation has changed. The meltdown in financial markets is much more serious than it looked in February. At its root are bad mortgages and other debts that are like toxic waste spreading throughout the financial system. The solution, therefore, is not to drop $100 bills from helicopters — which is essentially what the rebate would do. Rather, what we need is a mortgage Superfund that can clean up the toxic waste. If we can cleanse the financial system of at least some of the bad debts, it will do far more to restore the economy to health than anything that could be accomplished by the rebate — even if the rebate were to work as it is supposed to.We all know that the government is eventually going to get stuck with a lot of the bad debts, just as it did in the early 1990s when a previous housing bubble burst and bankrupt savings and loans had to be rescued. That bailout cost taxpayers $160 billion. The next one will probably cost more because the problem is bigger and the economy is larger. At the same time, there are increasing demands for targeted relief for homeowners facing foreclosure. It looks to many people as if Washington cares more about fat-cat bankers than working families in hard times. At some point, Congress is going to respond with additional aid for people caught in the mortgage mess, and this relief will come on top of the $117 billion cost of the rebate. We need to stop and ask whether we can afford to spend $117 billion that the Treasury Department does not have on a program of dubious effectiveness. It simply makes no sense to send out checks to people who have no need for it as some kind of election-year bribe to vote for incumbents of both parties. That money would go a long way toward cleaning up the mortgages that are poisoning the financial sector. Congress should immediately repeal the rebate and redirect the money that has been budgeted into a package of measures that would help the housing sector and those people who actually need assistance. The Treasury might use some of the money, for example, to enable Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored housing agencies, to buy up some of the bad mortgages, get them off bank balance sheets and help homeowners refinance them.