Why the French are Smarter than us Americans

Yeah, we have to have a stimulus plan. And one will pass this week. The latest iteration is the one crafted by a moderate Republican (Susan Collins of Maine) and a moderate Democrat (Ben Nelson of Nebraska). And as a militant moderate myself, I have to commend them for at least making some adjustments to the bottomless barrel of pork written by the Democrats in the House and the equally irresponsible “just say no” or “just say more tax cuts” approach by the Republicans.

In this morning’s Washington Post Senator Arlen Specter, one of the three Republicans likely to vote for this latest version, said that the $780 Billion Dollar package would create or save 4 million jobs. (As an aside “create or save” used by both Specter and President Obama is bullshit…why? It means you have already defined success for yourself. If not a single new job is created you can still say, “Yeah, but I saved 4 million jobs” and it’s impossible to disprove that.)But bullshit aside, make the calculation. $780 Billion divided by 4 million jobs equals $195,000 per job.

Now France has as big a case of economic chaos as we do. Their economy shrunk last year the most since World War II and their unemployment is expected to reach nearly 11%.

So, of course, President Sarkozy had to introduce his own economic stimulus plan. But here’s a big piece of his approach – committing 100 million extra Euros per year ($130 million) for the restoration of historic monuments in France for the next 4 years. So about 1.5% of his stimulus package is going toward heritage conservation. By the way Sarkozy isn’t the only one. In March there is going to be a hearing in Brussels of the European Union on using heritage conservation as a counter-cyclical economic development strategy.

So what if we took this approach as part of our stimulus plan? Of course in the US we are much more likely to use tax incentives to attract private investment rather than direct public funding. And we’ve done this effectively with the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit.

So let’s double the tax credit for the next 4 years (from 20% to 40%) and let’s assume that costs the US taxpayers the annual equivalent of $130 million per year. What would that mean? Nearly 20,000 jobs per year for each of the next 4 years. (Also, by the way, when economists and politicians say “job” they mean one full time job for one year. So if a stimulus package creates one job in the highway building business, for example, that lasts for the next four years, that will be counted as 4 jobs).

The cost to the US taxpayer of historic preservation as stimulus? $6875 dollars per job…for the same amount of money that is required to create 1 job in the rest of the stimulus package, 28 jobs would be created. And this would represent less than 1/10 of 1% of the stimulus spending, not France’s 1.5%.

Furthermore, this is Sustainable Economic Development! A tax credit to encourage Americans to buy even more cars isn’t.

France might not produce the best armies, but they are better at wine, better at cheese, and sure as hell better at figuring out a stimulus plan than we are.