“This package is sized not simply to fill the hole,” said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. “It’s trying to do somewhat different things. A lot of people and businesses are desperately hurting right now, so this money is relief aimed at those people, and in order to be really confident you’re reaching them all, you need to send a lot of money.”
But that doesn’t change the fact that the aggregate money the government is pumping out adds up to more than the missing economic activity, which could have meaningful consequences for the years ahead. And that is before accounting for other expected proposals from the Biden administration, such as large-scale funding of new infrastructure.
“There are pros and cons,” she said. “Running the economy hot might be a good thing, but there also might be a painful adjustment with a period of slow growth on the other side of the mountain.”
In an economy running hot, employers face shortages of workers and must bid up their wages to attract staff. This, along with potential shortages of various commodities, can, in theory, fuel a vicious cycle of rising prices.
For the last 13 years, arguably longer, the United States has had the opposite problem. Large numbers of Americans of prime working age — 25 to 54 — have been either unemployed or outside the labor force altogether. Wage growth has been weak most of that time, and inflation persistently below the levels the Federal Reserve aims for.
Some argue that estimates of potential output by the C.B.O. and private economists are too pessimistic — that Americans should dare to dream bigger. “We don’t really know what the G.D.P. output gap truly is,” said Mark Paul, an economist at New College of Florida. “Economists for decades have erred and been too cautious, thinking that full production is significantly lower than it actually is. We’ve been consistently running a cold economy, creating massive problems for social cohesion.”
In a paper published in December, he said a pandemic aid package of more than $3 trillion would be justified based on the scale of job losses that have been endured. The output gap looks worse based on employment than it does when you look at G.D.P., in part because job losses have disproportionately occurred in sectors that generate relatively low economic output per worker, such as restaurants.