As I was driving on North Main Street in Attleboro, before I crossed into North Attleborough, I took notice of the construction and thought that the new sidewalks, not yet finished, already look nice. However, I also noticed a sign that stated that the project is being funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA or the Stimulus).
According to Recovery.gov, as of July 9, the zip code 02703 has gotten $7,984,801 distributed over 12 federal stimulus grants. These are tax dollars being recycled back into our community. The question that each of us should have is the same as that we hear the pundits discuss: did this spent money create jobs?
Anyone who follows the national media knows the debate on whether or not the Stimulus produced or saved jobs or was just a waste of federal taxpayer dollars. The ARRA means of accountability is showing where the money is being spent, but this is a far call from measuring actual jobs being created or saved. This is not saying that the Stimulus did or didn't work and stave off a worse economic disaster than we may have other experienced - there are good arguments on both sides of the issue. It is saying that we really don't know.
So, what then of the federal money spent in Attleboro? Is money being used to fund projects that are beautifying Attleboro or are they creating or saving jobs for Attleboro residents? Either way, it is good for Attleboro, but we should be clear about what is going on.
Since tax dollars are being spent, residents have the right to know what tax dollars are being spent on. On the one hand, if we are creating or saving jobs, great. But if the goal is to beautify Attleboro under the pretense of creating jobs, we need to have a debate about the manner in which citizens are not being told the truth, or rather, the manner in which the government, at all levels, doesn't know how to measure success. The methods of measurement used to assess the effect of spent taxpayer dollars should be made public, if they exist, and let experts scrutinize the methods of accountability; this is a far superior means of accountability than local, state and federal officials' politically motivated claims. At present, the federal government has only shown where the money is being spent. This is not good enough. Meaningless accountability does nothing other than undermine citizens' confidence in government and future efforts at meaningful accountability.
In the Iraq war, after no WMDs were found, war advocates shifted the focus of the war to creating democracy as a reason for invading. While I know they mean well, I hope we are not going to see Stimulus advocates shift focus from creating jobs to just saving jobs or from creating jobs to claiming that things would have been worse off without the Stimulus without any evidence.
Just because money is spent, it doesn't mean that a job was created or saved; it just means that money was spent. Properly measuring the effect of spent Stimulus dollars is complicated and requires experts, but it can and should be done and should have been done from the beginning. In January of this year, CNN reported that each ARRA sign cost about $3,000 to make and erect. These signs are found throughout Massachusetts and across the country - we are spending millions of dollars to advertise that we are spending money! Yet, when I questioned this in DC last summer, I was told by a high ranking Obama appointee that proper measurements cost millions.
My education from the London School of Economics and at Harvard University's JFK School of Government leads me to believe that a Stimulus was necessary.
However my work experience in government accountability at city and state agencies leads me to believe that meaningful accountability is being unintentionally manufactured.
The bottom line is that we don't know if the Stimulus is creating or saving jobs in Attleboro or if the money is just being used to make Attleboro a bit nicer to live in. Before any more taxpayer dollars are spent, we should demand better accountability from our elected representatives at all levels.
PAUL HEROUX of Attleboro is a candidate at Harvard University's JFK School of Government for a master's of public administration.