Conflicting Numbers Hamper Stimulus Tracking

by: Donald Marron

In her recent speech about the impact of the stimulus effort, Christina Romer, Chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, noted that “as of the end of June, more than $100 billion had been spent.”

If you visit the government web site tracking the stimulus (Recovery.gov), however, it will tell you that the government had paid out only about $60 billion by July 3. (You can find this figure in the chart at the lower right hand corner of the home page.)

Why does Christi report a figure so much larger than the one reported on the official website? Because Recovery.gov isn’t tracking all of the budget effects of the stimulus.

Christi’s figure includes the $60 billion of spending reported on Recovery.gov plus an internal estimate, prepared by Treasury, of the tax reductions resulting from the stimulus effort through June 24. Those tax reductions are obviously a big deal, totaling $40 billion or slightly more through the end of June.

Based on conversations with friends and journalists, I get the sense that some users of Recovery.gov do not realize that its figures cover only the spending side of the stimulus story, not the tax side.

As a result, I think Recovery.gov is (unintentionally) confusing people into thinking that the stimulus effort to date is smaller than it has actually been.

I have two suggestions for how to fix this:

Step 1: Reduce Confusion: Recovery.gov should slap a warning label on the home page chart (and everywhere else it reports aggregate figures) that says something like: “These figures reflect only the new Federal spending that has resulted from the recovery act. The act also included significant tax reductions that aren’t reflected here.”

Step 2: Provide the Information: Of course, it would be even better if Treasury would release official estimates of the week-by-week or month-by-month tax reductions flowing from the recovery act. These figures would obviously be estimates — and thus not able to be audited to the same degree as the spending programs — but would be invaluable to analysts trying to track the impact of the stimulus effort.

As I noted last week, the Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that the total budget impact of the stimulus effort reached about $125 billion through the end of July.