The stimulus bill, at this writing, is $920 billion and rising.
What would help get the economy going, or keep it from going off a cliff?
Let's look at some of the leading contenders.
The term "shovel-ready" as applied to stimulus projects has a muscular, blue-collar connotation with overtones of the New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and trails through the parks. But when I hear the word "shovel" I think of snow, dirt, and manure, and not necessarily in that order. The manure potential in "shovel-ready" projects is vast.
A better term for stimulus projects that might pass congressional muster is "crane-ready." Crane as in cranes that rise ten stories or more into the sky and build hospitals and office buildings or sink pilings.
There are currently four "crane-ready" projects in or near downtown Memphis — Beale Street Landing, the conversion of the former Front Street post office into the University of Memphis Law School, the Horizon condos on the South Bluffs, and the expansion of LeBonheur Children's Medical Center on Poplar Avenue at Manassas.
None of these has been designated as a stimulus project, but labor-intensive, high-dollar projects with funding doled out in phases are likely to make the final list. Beale Street Landing, with a cost approaching $30 million, is especially likely to be stimulated because, as it now stands, city taxpayers are on the hook for the majority of the bill.
Road builders will win, too. They have the lobbyists and the campaign contributions. Two leading candidates for stimulus status are Interstate 69 in or around Memphis and Tunica and the "outer loop" around north and east Memphis that includes Paul Barrett Parkway. But roads promote sprawl — see Bill Morris Parkway and the vacant shopping centers and strip malls on Winchester near Hickory Hill.
Mass transit and light rail will be pitched as "green" and forward-looking alternatives, but the potential for waste is staggering. A few years ago, MATA estimated the cost of a light-rail line from downtown to the airport at $495 million. Such a line would serve only a small fraction of the population of Memphis and Shelby County.
Education is a sacred cow, but the last two schools built by Memphis City Schools were Manassas High School and Douglass High School. Both are half-full or less. The two things that everyone agrees can improve education — good teachers and involved parents — can't be changed with capital spending.
Some stimulus ideas are just too uninspiring. When President Obama talks about weather-stripping to make our houses more energy-efficient he sounds unpresidential, more cable guy than change guy.
Lower mortgage rates on new homes? No help if you don't own a home or plan to stay in the one you have. Demolishing a million vacant homes, as some economists have noted, would do more for the housing industry.
Technology is another sacred cow. A couple of years ago computers were installed at each member's seat in the chambers of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission. I wonder how many politicians are texting friends, checking email, or playing games instead of listening to the person standing in front of them. The next brainstorm will be a computer for every child in every classroom. That would be a dream for a computer salesman and a nightmare for teachers.
A tax cut? People might save it, minimizing the stimulus.
There is a better idea: cash for trash.
Most of us have enough stuff. This is both the cause and the cushion of the recession. So give Americans cash vouchers for their old cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, washers and dryers, and computers. The money would have to be spent on newer and more efficient models. The benefits would be widespread, from General Motors in Spring Hill to Carrier Air Conditioning in Collierville to the trucking companies. Add a capital-expense tax break for business, as proposed by FedEx CEO Fred Smith, one of the great job creators of our time.
Cash for trash would reward the thrifty more than the profligate. It would put money in circulation. It would help the many, not the few. And bending over to reach inside my old refrigerator is killing me.