White: Stimulus need seen in Elm City

On Monday night, the Senate voted 61-36 to end debate on the $838 billion stimulus bill, precluding a filibuster and clearing the way for an up-or-down vote tomorrow. Barring some calamity that incapacitates more than 20 Democratic senators overnight while leaving the Senate Republican caucus unscathed, the stimulus will clear the Senate today.

Before any plan goes into effect, the House and Senate leadership need to resolve differences between the two versions of the bill. The primary issues at stake will involve the Senate’s elimination of a $40 billion fund to help states alleviate budget shortfalls without cutting jobs and its inclusion of a $70 billion adjustment to the alternative minimum tax that, according to The New York Times, “economists say … offers no new help to the economy.”

Minor issues notwithstanding — and it’s evidence of the bill’s size that discussions about numbers with 10 digits after the dollar sign can be classified as “minor issues” — last night’s Senate vote virtually ensures that the country will soon receive around either $800 billion in necessary stimulus spending (if you get your news from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and/or Chris Matthews) or a pork-laden travesty masquerading as a stimulus that will put the final nail in our economic coffin (if you get your news from national Republican leadership and/or Rush Limbaugh).

The vast partisan divide over the stimulus package doesn’t tell us much about the bill itself. Contrary to the fears advanced by the hard right, the stimulus is unlikely to ruin America permanently, but it would undoubtedly benefit from significant improvements and will almost certainly prove to be something less than a panacea.

Perhaps anticipating mixed results or worse, President Obama spent Monday in Indiana simultaneously selling his plan and managing expectations, saying, “I can’t tell you with 100 percent certainty that every single item in this plan will work exactly as we hoped.” Or, in other words, “Don’t judge me in 2012 on the basis of this bill — unless it works, in which case I’ll be sure to make my economic successes the centerpiece of my re-election campaign.”

Amid allegations of dirty politics and intellectual dishonesty on both sides of the stimulus fight, someone hoping for a balanced and accurate view of the bill seems bound to find himself hopelessly lost somewhere between economist Paul Krugman’s frantic pleas for more money and Sen. James Inhofe’s world-historical hyperbole: “This is the largest spending in the history of mankind, the largest spending in the history of the world.”

Fortunately, as Yale students, we’re well situated to judge the efficacy of the stimulus for ourselves. And it’s not because we’re receiving the best education money can buy, since even tenured Ph.D.s at elite research universities seem to be struggling to avoid partisan hackery when they discuss the stimulus. We’re in a position to make our own judgments about the bill because we happen to live in New Haven.

New Haven combines a host of the ills that a well-executed stimulus would serve to alleviate: struggling schools, high unemployment and poor infrastructure. The recent closings of Mory’s and the Yankee Doodle — not to mention Cosi and East Melange — reflect not only bad luck or bad management but also macroeconomic forces well outside the control of small-business owners.

The dearth of efficient public transportation and the large puddles that show up on street corners every time it snows cry out for the sort of infrastructure rehabilitation that not only creates jobs but also makes cities more livable (thus improving property values and tax revenue). And the increasingly visible presence of homelessness, exacerbated by funding cuts to organizations like Shelter Now, indicates the price poor Americans pay during tough economic times.

The stimulus bill is supposed to “save” the American economy, or at least stabilize it enough to encourage the sort of private spending that ends recessions. But it is hard to know what an economy “saved” by a stimulus looks like. The stimulus demands a more visible barometer of success. If it can put people to work revitalizing urban infrastructure, improving school conditions and establishing the backbone of a 21st-century economy, the stimulus will prove at least a partial success.

No one seems to know whether the bill we have now will prove successful or not. But the proof, so to speak, will be in the pudding — in cities like New Haven, urban centers whose vacant storefronts and crumbling infrastructure offer a clear picture of our current economic state.

Xan White is a senior in Pierson College.

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