Suddenly all of Washington is talking about the need for an economic stimulus to keep the country out of recession. President Bush made an appeal for a bipartisan package on Friday, before his visit to Frederick, and with most of the presidential candidates clamoring to offer their suggestions, it's a good bet that something will be delivered to the nation before this is over.
Skepticism about a federally engineered stimulus is not unreasonable: The worst sort of relief package would cost a lot and be ineffective, or even counterproductive, and the best would largely be about show. But sometimes even appearances are important, so with all the bad news gathering, a stimulus may be called for - if it's done the right way.
It's gratifying that the president isn't linking a short-term measure to his insistence on permanent tax cuts, since the point of a stimulus is to do something now, and not two or three years from now. His approach is to provide about $150 billion in tax rebates and business incentives. We believe there are a few ways to tweak that idea to make it more effective.
The most important fact is this: Poor people spend more of their money than rich people do. And because a stimulus program is most effective when most of the money is spent, not saved, it makes sense to target it toward lower-income people - for the sake of the economy, as much as for their sake.
Some ways to do this, as suggested in a recent report by the Brookings Institution: Extend unemployment benefits. Increase the value of food stamps, temporarily. And rather than a tax rebate, offer a flat tax credit to all households with earned income. This would catch those low-wage workers who have minimal tax liability and who would not stand to benefit from a rebate. But it wouldn't leave out the middle class, either.
The big problem, though, is the mortgage market, and the government needs to find ways to restore faith in the financial institutions that package the loans, because their credibility at the moment is in the tank. Ben S. Bernanke, the Fed chairman, and Henry M. Paulson Jr., the secretary of the Treasury, should lean on Wall Street to clean up its act and restore confidence in the way it does business - that would help put housing on its feet, and it would be a genuine stimulus to the economy.