Most people know that the deficit whiners live largely in a fact free zone, but every now and then it is worth trying to throw a few in their direction in the quest for intelligent life. The immediate motivation is Joe Scarborough’s latest tirade after having Paul Krugman as a guest on his show.

Scarborough is of the view that if stimulus was the answer the economy would have already recovered by now. In this context, we might ask what the stimulus was designed to do relative to the size of the problem.

The best evidence here is the assessment of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) from March of 2009. The reason this analysis is useful is that it is a look at what the economy was expected to do and the impact of stimulus at the time it was passed. CBO was looking at the actual stimulus as passed. It also in an independent agency with no motive to cook the books.

Here’s the picture that CBO drew compared to what actually happened.


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Source: Congressional Budget Office.

There are two points which should jump out at anyone. First, even as late as March of 2009 CBO hugely underestimated the severity of the downturn. The actual drop in employment from 2008 to 2009 was 5.5 million. The predicted drop was just 3.8 million. In other words, CBO underestimated the initial hit from the downturn by 1.7 million jobs, even after it was already well underway.

If anyone wants to blame the greater severity of the downturn on the stimulus they would have a hard story to tell. Most of the hit was before a dollar of the stimulus was spent. Employment in March of 2009 was 5.4 million before its year ago level.

Of course CBO was overly optimistic about the pace of the turnaround. It predicted that employment would rise by 1.7 million in 2010 even if we did nothing. Someone may have a story about how this increase would have happened had it not been for the stimulus (lower interest rates?), but it is difficult to envision what that story would look like.

The other point that this chart makes nicely is that the predicted gains from the stimulus were small relative to the size of the downturn. CBO predicted that the maximum benefit from the stimulus would be in 2010 when employment would be 2.4 million higher than without the stimulus. This needs to be repeated a few hundred thousand times the stimulus was only projected to create 2.4 million jobs.

That is not rewriting history or making it up as we go along. This is a projection from an independent agency made at the time the stimulus was passed. The economy ended up losing over 7 million jobs. At its peak impact, the stimulus was only projected to replace 2.4 million of these jobs. And after 2010 the stimulus’ impact quickly went to zero as the spending and tax cuts came to an end.

How can anyone be surprised that the stimulus did not bring the economy back to full employment? No one expected it to be large enough to reverse the impact of a slump of this magnitude.

President Obama and his team deserve lots of criticism for failing to recognize the severity of the downturn. They deserve even more blame for not acknowledging this fact, and that their stimulus was inadequate for the task at hand.

But their errors do not change the reality. The stimulus was not designed to create 7 million jobs. Why would Joe Scarborough or anyone else be surprised to see that it didn’t?

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economy and Policy Research. He also writes a regular blog, Beat the Press, where this post originally appeared.