Obama's Stimulus Targets Health and Education


By directing more money to such "intangibles" than to manufacturing and construction, the plan rightly feeds the sectors that are growing

Here's a quiz for you: The two biggest job creators in the economy over the past year were health care and education, adding 370,000 and 160,000 jobs, respectively. Meanwhile, construction and manufacturing lost a total of 1.5 million jobs.

So which one of these two statements is true?

a) The Obama stimulus bill gives the most money to the worst-hit parts of the economy—manufacturing and construction.

b) The Obama stimulus bill gives the most money to the growing parts of the economy—health care and education.

If you guessed (b), give yourself a pat on the back. Despite all the talk of big infrastructure projects, the majority of increased spending in the bill goes to health and education. And that's a good thing.

Looking at the House version, health care gets more than $160 billion in new spending, including everything from beefed-up Medicaid to almost $4 billion for military hospitals. Education gets about $150 billion in new spending, including $79 billion for state education aid and billions more for school modernization.

Labor-Intensive Industries

By comparison, infrastructure and construction get only about $110 billion to $120 billion. And we get that high only by counting some health-care and education spending—say, for new hospitals—in the construction category as well. (These numbers will change, of course, as the package moves through Congress.)

Manufacturing gets to take advantage of some of the tax credits in the bill, with some additional assistance for battery manufacturers and buy-American provisions to help the steel industry.

From a job-creation perspective, focusing on health care and education makes perfect sense. These are labor-intensive industries for which there is little foreign competition, and which produce great demand for educated workers. As a result, money pumped into these areas will produce more good jobs.

Expanding Sectors

But in a broader sense, the Obama stimulus plan acknowledges and ratifies the ongoing shift of the U.S. economy from "tangibles" to "intangibles." The tangible sector includes industries producing or distributing physical goods, such as construction, manufacturing, retailing, and transportation. These industries are in free-fall, with massive and repeated job cuts, because of a global oversupply of manufacturing capacity and weakness in demand for goods such as cars and electronics.

By contrast, the intangible sector, led by health care and education, is expanding, even in the downturn. In a knowledge-based economy, there's still demand for more education, there's still demand for better health, there's still demand for new and better ideas.

The passage of the Obama plan will likely mark the dividing line between the tangible-based economy of the past and the intangible-based economy of the future. For people looking for a job or hoping to start a business, this is the shape of things to come.

Mandel is chief economist for BusinessWeek.

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