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Once Upon A Crisis

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As the 2012 Presidential election campaign heats up, there is plenty of historical revisionism taking place with respect to the 2008 financial / economic crisis.  Economist Dean Baker wrote an article for The Guardian, wherein he debunked the Obama administration’s oft-repeated claim that the newly-elected President saved us from a “Second Great Depression”:

While the Obama administration, working alongside Ben Bernanke at the Fed, deserves credit for preventing a financial meltdown, a second great depression was never in the cards.

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The attack on the second Great Depression myth is not simply an exercise in semantics.  The Obama Administration and the political establishment more generally want the public to be grateful that we managed to avoid a second Great Depression. People should realize that this claim is sort of like keeping our kids safe from tiger attacks.  It’s true that almost no kids in the United States are ever attacked by tigers, but we don’t typically give out political praise for this fact, since there is no reason to expect our kids to be attacked by tigers.

In the same vein, we all should be very happy we aren’t in the middle of a second Great Depression; however, there was never any good reason for us to fear a second Great Depression.  What we most had to fear was a prolonged period of weak growth and high unemployment.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what we are seeing.   The only question is how long it will drag on.

Joe Weisenthal of The Business Insider directed our attention to the interview with economist Paul Krugman appearing in the current issue of Playboy.  Krugman, long considered a standard bearer for the Democratic Party’s economic agenda, was immediately thrown under the bus as soon as Obama took office.  I’ll never forget reading about the “booby prize” roast beef dinner Obama held for Krugman and his fellow Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz – when the two economists were informed that their free advice would be ignored. Fortunately, former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was able to make sure that pork wasn’t the main course for that dinner.  Throughout the Playboy interview, Krugman recalled his disappointment with the new President.  Here’s what Joe  Weisenthal had to say about the piece:

There’s a long interview with Paul Krugman in the new Playboy, and it’s excellent.

We tend to write a lot about his economic commentary here, but he probably doesn’t get enough credit for his commentary on politics, and his assessment of how things will play out.

Go back and read this column, from March 2009, and you’ll see that he basically called things correctly, that the stimulus would be too small, and that the GOP would be emboldened and gain success arguing that the problem was that we had stimulus at all.

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At least as Krugman sees it, the times called for a major boost in spending and so on, and Obama never had any intention to deliver.

What follows is the prescient excerpt from Krugman’s March 9, 2009 essay, referenced by Joe Weisenthal:

The broader public, by contrast, favors strong action.  According to a recent Newsweek poll, a majority of voters supports the stimulus, and, more surprising, a plurality believes that additional spending will be necessary.  But will that support still be there, say, six months from now?

Also, an overwhelming majority believes that the government is spending too much to help large financial institutions.  This suggests that the administration’s money-for-nothing financial policy will eventually deplete its political capital.

So here’s the picture that scares me:  It’s September 2009, the unemployment rate has passed 9 percent, and despite the early round of stimulus spending it’s still headed up.  Obama finally concedes that a bigger stimulus is needed.  But he can’t get his new plan through Congress because approval for his economic policies has plummeted, partly because his policies are seen to have failed, partly because job-creation policies are conflated in the public mind with deeply unpopular bank bailouts.  And as a result, the recession rages on, unchecked.

In early July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, in which I observed that President Obama had already reached the milestone anticipated by Krugman for September of that year.  I made a point of including a list of ignored warnings about the inadequacy of the stimulus program.  Most notable among them was the point that there were fifty economists who shared the concerns voiced by Krugman, Stiglitz and Jamie Galbraith:

Despite all these warnings, as well as a Bloomberg survey conducted in early February, revealing the opinions of economists that the stimulus would be inadequate to avert a two-percent economic contraction in 2009, the President stuck with the $787 billion plan.

Mike Grabell of ProPublica has written a new book entitled, Money Well Spent? which provided an even-handed analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.  As I pointed out on February 13, some of the criticisms voiced by Mike Grabell concerning the programs funded by the Economic Recovery Act had been previously expressed by Keith Hennessey (former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush) in a June 3, 2009 posting at Hennessey’s blog.  I was particularly intrigued by this suggestion by Keith Hennessey from back in 2009:

Had the President instead insisted that a $787 B stimulus go directly into people’s hands, where “people” includes those who pay income taxes and those who don’t, we would now be seeing a stimulus that would be:

  • partially effective but still quite large – Because it would be a temporary change in people’s incomes, only a fraction of the $787 B would be spent.  But even 1/4 or 1/3 of $787 B is still a lot of money to dump out the door.  The relative ineffectiveness of a temporary income change would be offset by the enormous amount of cash flowing.
  • efficient – People would be spending money on themselves. Some of them would be spending other people’s money on themselves, but at least they would be spending on their own needs, rather than on multi-year water projects in the districts of powerful Members of Congress.  You would have much less waste.
  • fast – The GDP boost would be concentrated in Q3 and Q4 of 2009, tapering off heavily in Q1 of 2010.

Why did the President not do this?  Discussions with the Congress began in January before he took office, and he faced a strong Speaker who took control and gave a huge chuck of funding to House Appropriations Chairman Obey (D-WI).  I can think of three plausible explanations:

  1. The President and his team did not realize the analytical point that infrastructure spending has too slow of a GDP effect.
  2. They were disorganized.
  3. They did not want a confrontation with their new Congressional allies in their first few days.

Given the fact that the American economy is 70% consumer-driven, Keith Hennessey’s proposed stimulus would have boosted that sorely-missing consumer demand as far back as two years ago.  We can only wonder where our unemployment level and our Gross Domestic Product would be now if Hennessey’s plan had been implemented – despite the fact that it would have been limited to the $787 billion amount.


 

Lack Of Stimulation

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September 9, 2010

You don’t have to look very far to find a rabid, hostile reaction to President Obama’s proposed $50 billion transportation infrastructure program.  After all – it’s an election year.  I was quite surprised when I read this paragraph from a BusinessWeek report about the proposal:

For companies that do the unglamorous work of pouring cement, crushing stones, and hauling earth, President Barack Obama’s $50 billion proposal outlined on Sept. 6 to rebuild U.S. roads, railways, and runways is welcome relief amid unrelenting economic gloom.  If approved by Congress (an uncertain proposition in an election year) Obama’s plan would pick up the slack when most of the highway stimulus funds under the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is expected to be spent next year, says Mike Betts, an analyst with London-based Jefferies.

Stop and think about that for a moment.  The phrase I wish to bring to your attention is:

.  .  .   most of the highway stimulus funds under the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is expected to be spent next year    .  .  .

The first question that came to mind was:  Why the hell wasn’t it spent last year?  We’ve been reading about how the effects of the “Obama stimulus bill” (a/k/a  the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) have already stopped boosting the economy.  How much more of that money has been sitting on the sidelines?  Beyond that, why didn’t the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provide more funding for infrastructure?

The proposed transportation infrastructure program will cost approximately the same as the B-2 Stealth Bomber program, which produced 21 bombers at an average cost of $2.1 billion per aircraft in 1997 dollars.

Since July of last year, I have been among those arguing that the $787 billion economic stimulus package was inadequate, after reading about a Bloomberg survey of economists, which supported that conclusion in February of 2009.  In early 2009, there was a greater sense of urgency about the state of the economy and a stronger political will to enact a more significant stimulus.  Unfortunately, President Obama was not up to the task of pushing a larger bill through.  As a result, the President is now making piecemeal stimulus efforts, such as the $50-billion infrastructure proposal.  The tragedy of not getting it right the first time seemed more unfortunate after I read a recent posting by Barry Ritholtz at his blog, The Big Picture.  Here is what Mr. Ritholtz had to say:

Yesterday on XM Sirius, we discussed Infrastructure.

One of the callers was a civil engineer who suggested we take a look at the US Infrastructure Report Card (infrastructurereportcard.org), which grades the US on a variety of factors.  The 2009 Grades include: Aviation (D), Bridges (C), Dams (D), Drinking Water (D-), Energy (D+), Hazardous Waste (D), Inland Waterways (D-), Levees (D-), Public Parks and Recreation (C-), Rail (C-), Roads(D-), Schools (D), Solid Waste (C+), Transit (D), and Wastewater (D-).

Overall, America’s Infrastructure GPA was graded a “D.”  To get to an “A” requires a 5 year infrastructure investment of $2.2 Trillion dollars.  Hence, you can understand if I am underwhelmed by the latest $50B proposal.

Each individual state is also graded;  NY’s is after the jump.

After reading about the Infrastructure Report Card, I couldn’t help but wonder how our economy would have benefited from a $2.2 trillion infrastructure program rather than the $850 billion stimulus program enacted in 2009.  Consider what economist Joseph Stiglitz had to say about how the global financial crisis was affecting Australia in August of 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon. So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked: Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

There’s a right way of doing economic stimulus and a wrong way of implementing such a program.  Unfortunately, America did it the wrong way.





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