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January 01, 2011

Reaction to Confessions of a Stimulator

Wall Street Journal publication of the lead article from my "Confessions of a Stimulator" series not only had a healthy comment thread of its own but led to other main stream media attention as well as blogosphere discussion.

Derek Thompson wrote a post entitled "Vermont Stimulus Czar Has Smart Critique of the Stimulus" on the Atlantic's website. Although he's not convinced of my assertion that the Stimulus had a negligible impact on overall employment, he says "But that aside, this is a smart criticism of the inner-workings of the stimulus and more evidence that even smart ideas in the abstract can run up against the messy array of interests at the local level."

On the other hand, after Ezra Klein at the Washington Post ran a link the WSJ op-ed, he got a steaming email in response from Gary Burtless at the Brookings Institute which Klein ran almost in its entirety. Gary says the op-ed is "silly" and goes on to demonstrate. IMHO, that he doesn't understand how Stimulus actually worked. But it's worth reading his POV (and my comment at the end of that).

This debate will continue because National Public Radio invited both Gary Burtless and me along with Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson to be guests on "To The Point" hosted by Warren Olney. The live interview is Monday, January 3, between 2:10 and 2:45 PM ET; I'm not sure whether it is carried by all NPR stations or whether all carry it at the same timea  list of NPR stations which carry the show and the times they carry it is at http://www.kcrw.com/news/programs/tp/station-list . It is also available as a podcast from NPR, however. I'll tweet a reminder, which you'll get if you follow me at http://twitter.com/tevslin.

I've also been invited to be guest on Fox Business News but the time hasn't been firmed up yet.

Meanwhile Confessions of a Stimulator – Jobs Don't Count, the second post in the series, ran on Fractals of Change and was also carried by vermonttiger.com (whose editor Geoffrey Norman was key to getting the WSJ op-ed run), vtdigger.org where there was an especially vigorous discussion and much disagreement, and the investor site seekingalpha.com, where there was general agreement with my criticism of parts of Stimulus but also dissent on my blanket condemnation of TARP. Blog.nextblitz.com had an approving post by Galeal Zino, and Joel West on Open IT Strategies defended me from charges of being a bureaucrat. Funny note: while googling "Evslin stimulator" to see where my posts were mentioned, I found my grandfather's patent for a stimulating adjustable toothbrush which was granted in 1929.

There are no simple answers to the questions "was the Stimulus Act a good or bad idea?" or "did the Stimulus work?" Over $800 billion was spent on roughly 300 different programs. As Vermont's "stimulus czar", I did my best to make the programs work for Vermont. Some did work; some failed; some have just begun. Some of the failures were mine; some of the programs were doomed from the beginning; others might have succeeded if implemented differently; some programs were downright harmful (not just expensive).

Since I had responsibility for these programs here and was the liaison with Washington, I had an inside view. Unlike most of the stimulus czars from other states, my career has been as a high-tech entrepreneur, so I have a businessperson's viewpoint of Stimulus and the governments, organizations, and people who were and weren't stimulated by it. Since I re-retired at the end of my state stint, I can speak frankly about what I saw.

Every project needs a post mortem so we can do better next time. The purpose of my series is to learn as much as we can from the gigantic and expensive Stimulus Act, both about what worked and what didn't – and about the limits to what government can do and should attempt to do. This won't be the last economic crisis we face nor is the "crisis" truly over.

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