The difference between growth and contraction

Ordinarily, when the White House issues a report on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend, it’s news administration officials are eager to bury. If they wanted people to see it, officials would pick a better time to release it.

But yesterday, the Obama White House released this report (pdf), which isn’t embarrassing in the slightest. In fact, I’m a little surprised the West Wing didn’t make more of an effort to promote news like this.

A White House report released Friday said the 2009 stimulus bill raised GDP by as much as 3.2 percent in the first quarter of 2011.

The report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers said the stimulus added 2.3 to 3.2 percent to gross domestic product in the first quarter relative to what it otherwise would have been.

The stimulus package also increased employment relative to what it otherwise would have been by between 2.4 and 3.6 million jobs, the report said.

Reading the report, there’s no apparent effort to fudge the data or exaggerate the results. It’s simply a summary of what the Recovery Act did and the extent to which it worked.

And “worked” is the key word here. Economic growth in the first quarter of 2011 (January through March) was quite meager at 1.9%. But the key point to keep in mind here is that without the stimulus, economic growth wouldn’t have existed at all, and the economy would have contracted.

In all, there are as many as 3.6 million Americans with jobs today who wouldn’t have otherwise had them were it not for Democratic stimulus effort.

Republicans began insisting that the stimulus “failed” in early April 2009, when the initiative was barely underway. They’ve repeated the bogus claim every day since, hoping that dishonest repetition would shape the debate and skew public attitudes. To a very real extent, the propaganda campaign has been a success: most of the country believes the Recovery Act didn’t work, which in turn has undermined the very idea of public investment as a means towards economic growth.

Reality, however, points in a very different direction.

The stimulus should have been bigger and more ambitious, and deserved more than one round of investment. But the fact remains that the derided Recovery Act turned the economy around. An economy that was shrinking started growing, and an economy that was hemorrhaging jobs started adding jobs, because of this one piece of legislation. Republicans, reporters, and even the American mainstream may find these facts inconvenient, but the truth is stubborn.

Facing the greatest economic crisis in generations, the nation was effectively left with two choices early 2009: the Democratic stimulus or the Republicans’ proposed five-year spending freeze. We’re all very fortunate the latter was in the minority.