One of the major patterns Messrs. Jones and Rothschild uncovered was that the top-down stimulus was poorly targeted. In one redolent example, a federal contractor said he was told to use smaller, nonstandard tiles that are harder and more expensive to install in order to increase the cost of the project. That way, the government could claim the money was moving out the door faster. The famous Milton Friedman line about government ordering people to dig with spoons to employ more people comes to mind.

In another case study, a budget shortfall forced a mid-size city to lay off 185 public workers—but the city received a $4 million stimulus grant to improve municipal energy efficiency. The manager of a construction company received funds for “the last thing on our list; and truthfully, the least useful thing.” It happened to be a crane and a forklift.

The authors are careful to note that such anecdotes do not mean that all of the stimulus was a waste, and they did find some success stories. The problem is that all but the most reductionist Keynesians of the Paul Krugman school believe it matters what the government spends money on. A dollar that eventually will be taken out of the private economy through borrowing or higher taxes to fund pointlessly expensive projects—a la the tiny tiles—is not the way to nurture a recovery.