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Leadership Void

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In my last posting, I re-ran a passage from what I wrote on December 2, which was supported by Robert Reich’s observation that, unlike Bill Clinton, Barack Obama is not at the helm of a country with an expanding economy.  As I said on December 2:

After establishing an economic advisory team consisting of retreads from the Clinton White House, President Obama has persisted in approaching the 2010 economy as though it were the 1996 economy.

After I posted my April 7 piece, I felt a bit remorseful about repeating a stale theme.  Nevertheless, a few days later, Ezra Klein’s widely-acclaimed Washington Post critique of President Obama’s misadventure in “negotiating” the 2011 budget was entitled, “2011 is not 1995”.  Ezra Klein validated the point I was trying to make:

Clinton’s success was a function of a roaring economy.  The late ‘90s were a boom time like few others — and not just in America.  The unemployment rate was less than 6 percent in 1995, and fell to under 5 percent in 1996. Cutting deficits was the right thing to do at that time.  Deficits should be low to nonexistent when the economy is strong, and larger when it is weak.  The Obama administration’s economists know that full well.  They are, after all, the very people who worked to balance the budget in the 1990s, and who fought to expand the deficit in response to the recession.

Right now, the economy is weak.  Giving into austerity will weaken it further, or at least delay recovery for longer.  And if Obama does not get a recovery, then he will not be a successful president, no matter how hard he works to claim Boehner’s successes as his own.

President Obama’s attempt at spin control with a claim of “bragging rights” for ending the budget stalemate brought similar criticism from economist Brad DeLong:

To reduce federal government spending by $38 billion in the second and third quarters of 2011 when the unemployment rate is 8.9% and the U.S. Treasury can borrow on terms that make pulling spending forward from the future into the present essentially free is not an accomplishment.

It will knock between 0.5% and 1.0% off the growth rate of real GDP in the second half of 2011, and leave us at the start of 2012 with an unemployment rate a couple of tenths of a percent higher than it would have been otherwise.

Robert Reich expressed his disappointment with the President’s handling of the 2011 budget deal by highlighting Mr. Obama’s failure to put the interests of the middle class ahead of the goals of the plutocracy:

He is losing the war of ideas because he won’t tell the American public the truth:  That we need more government spending now – not less – in order to get out of the gravitational pull of the Great Recession.

That we got into the Great Recession because Wall Street went bonkers and government failed to do its job at regulating financial markets.  And that much of the current deficit comes from the necessary response to that financial crisis.

That the only ways to deal with the long-term budget problem is to demand that the rich pay their fair share of taxes, and to slow down soaring health-care costs.

And that, at a deeper level, the increasingly lopsided distribution of income and wealth has robbed the vast working middle class of the purchasing power they need to keep the economy going at full capacity.

“We preserved the investments we need to win the future,” he said last night.  That’s not true.

The idea that a huge portion of our current deficit comes from the response to the financial crisis created by Wall Street banks was explored in more detail by Cullen Roche of Pragmatic Capitalism.  The approach of saving the banks, under the misguided notion that relief would “trickle down” to Main Street didn’t work.  The second round of quantitative easing (QE 2) has proven to be nothing more than an imprudent decision to follow Japan’s ineffective playbook:

And in 2008 our government was convinced by Timothy Geithner, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke that if we just saved the banks we would fix the economy.  So we embarked on the “recovery” plan that has led us to one of the weakest recoveries in US economic history.  Because of the keen focus on the banking system there is a clear two tier recovery.  Wall Street is thriving again and Main Street is still struggling.

Thus far, we have run budget deficits that have been large enough to offset much of the deleveraging of the private sector.  And though the spending was poorly targeted it has been persistent enough that we are not repeating the mistakes of Japan – YET.  By my estimates the balance sheet recession is likely to persist well into 2013.

*   *   *

QE2 has truly been a “monetary non-event”.  As many of us predicted at its onset, this program has shown absolutely no impact on the US money supply (much to the dismay of the hyperinflationists).  And now its damaging psychological impact (via rampant speculation) has altered the options available to combat the continuing balance sheet recession.  While more stimulus is almost certainly off the table given the Fed’s misguided QE2 policy, it would be equally misguided to begin cutting the current budget deficit.  Sizable cuts before the end of the balance sheet recession will almost guarantee that the US economy suffers a Japan-like relapse.  It’s not too late to learn from the mistakes of Japan.

So where is the leader who is going to save us from a Japanese-style “lost decade” recession?  It was over two years ago when I posed this question:

Will the Obama administration’s “failure of nerve” – by avoiding bank nationalization – send us into a ten-year, “Japan-style” recession?  It’s beginning to look that way.

Two years down – eight years to go.


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Wisconsin Bogeymen Could Save Democrats From Themselves

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Until this week, it was beginning to appear as though November 6, 2012 would be the day when Barack Obama and the entire Democratic Party would fall victim to their incurable case of The Smug.  I discussed this syndrome back on December 2:

The Democratic Party is suffering from a case of terminal smugness. Democrats ignored the warning back in 2006, when the South Park television series ran the episode, “Smug Alert”.

*   *   *

In the 2008 Democratic Primary elections, voters chose “change” rather than another Clinton administration.  Nevertheless, what the voters got was another Clinton administration.  After establishing an economic advisory team consisting of retreads from the Clinton White House, President Obama has persisted in approaching the 2010 economy as though it were the 1996 economy.  Obama’s creation of a bipartisan deficit commission has been widely criticized as an inept fallback to the obsolete Bill Clinton playbook.  Robert Reich, Labor Secretary for the original Clinton administration recently upbraided President Obama for this wrongheaded approach:

Bill Clinton had a rapidly expanding economy to fall back on, so his appeasement of Republicans didn’t legitimize the Republican world view.  Obama doesn’t have that luxury.  The American public is still hurting and they want to know why.

More recently, Robert Scheer lamented how President Obama’s economic team of recycled Clinton advisors shared the blame with Republicans in helping bring about the financial crisis and the ever-worsening income inequality between the “haves” and the “have nots”.  Mr. Scheer reminded us that the Democrats who promised “change” have been no less corrupted by lobbyists than their Republican counterparts:

The lobbyists are deliberately bipartisan in their bribery, and the authors of our demise are equally marked as Democrats and Republicans.  Ronald Reagan first effectively sang the siren song of ending government’s role in corporate crime prevention, but it was Democrat Bill Clinton who accomplished much of that goal.  It is the enduring conceit of the top Democratic leaders that they are valiantly holding back the forces of evil when they actually have continuously been complicit.

*   *   *

Thanks to President Clinton’s deregulation and the save-the-rich policies of George W. Bush, the situation deteriorated further from 2002 to 2006, a period in which the top 1 percent increased its income 11 percent annually while the rest of Americans had a truly paltry gain of 1 percent per year.

And that was before the meltdown that wiped out the jobs and home values of so many tens of millions of American families.

Thanks to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, the Democrats now have two bogeymen, who can personify the “reverse Robin Hood” crusade of the modern Republican Party.  E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post recently placed the burden on centrists to prevent the draconian budget proposal introduced by Representative Ryan, from finding its way to the President’s desk (probably because it would be signed if it got there):

Ryan’s truly outrageous proposal, built on heaping sacrifice onto the poor, slashing scholarship aid to college students and bestowing benefits on the rich, ought to force middle-of-the-roaders to take sides.  No one who is even remotely moderate can possibly support what Ryan has in mind.

Mr. Dionne then focused his attack more directly on two “middle-of-the-road” political figures:

Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the deficit commission and the heroes of the budget-cutting center, put out a statement saying some nice things about the idea of the Ryan budget.  They called it “serious, honest, straightforward,” even though there is much about its accounting that is none of those.

What Mr. Dionne conveniently ignores is that it was President Obama who appointed Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson as co-chairs of the deficit commission.  Those guys were never my heroes.  Last December, when I criticized Obama’s elevation of Alan Simpson and a Clinton retread to leadership of his own deficit commission, I incorporated some pointed observations by Cullen Roche of Pragmatic Capitalism.  The platitudinous insistence by Erskine Bowles (Clinton’s former Chief of Staff) that it’s time for an “adult conversation about the dangers of this debt” drew this blistering retort from Cullen Roche:

Yes.  America has a debt problem.  We have a very serious household, municipality and state debt crisis that is in many ways similar to what is going on in Europe.   What we absolutely don’t have is a federal government debt problem.  After all, a nation with monopoly supply of currency in a floating exchange rate system never really has “debt” unless that debt is denominated in a foreign currency.  He says this conversation is the:

“exact same conversation every family, every single business, every single state and every single municipality has been having these last few years.”

There is only one problem with this remark.  The federal government is NOTHING like a household, state or municipality.   These entities are all revenue constrained.  The Federal government has no such constraint.  We don’t need China to lend us money.  We don’t need to raise taxes to spend money.  When the US government wants to spend money it sends men and women into a room where they mark up accounts in a computer system.   They don’t call China first or check their tax revenues.   They just spend the money.

*   *   *
Mr. Bowles finished his press conference by saying that the American people get it:

“There is one thing I am absolutely sure of.  If nothing else, I know deep down the American people get it.   They know this is the moment of truth”

The American people most certainly don’t get it.  And how can you blame them?  When a supposed financial expert like Mr. Bowles can’t grasp these concepts how could we ever expect the average American to understand it?  It’s time for an adult conversation to begin before this misguided conversation regarding the future bankruptcy of America sends us towards our own “moment of truth” – a 1937 moment.

We centrists actually know better than to take Simpson and Bowles seriously.  Unfortunately, E.J. Dionne’s hero – Barack Obama – doesn’t.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has become the second bogeyman for the Democrats to spotlight in their efforts to cleanse their own tarnished images after selling out to Wall Street lobbyists.  As Amanda Terkel reported for The Huffington Post:

A divisive budget battle between labor unions and Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) turned a state Supreme Court race into a nationally watched bellwether on the electorate’s mood heading into a recall campaign and the 2012 elections.

Nearly 1.5 million people turned out to vote, representing 33.5 percent of voting-age adults — 68 percent higher than the 20 percent turnout officials had expected.  JoAnne Kloppenburg has already declared victory, with the vote tallies showing her beating incumbent David Prosser by just a couple hundred votes.  The race is expected to head to a recount.

*   *   *

There were no party affiliations on the ballot, but Kloppenburg was heavily backed by Democrats and Prosser by Republicans, making it a fierce proxy battle for the two parties.

Will the Wisconsin Bogeymen provide the Democrats with the inspiration and motivation they need to put the interests of the American middle class ahead of the goals of the Plutocracy?  Don’t bet on it.


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