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Christina Romer Was Right

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Now it’s official.  Christina Romer was right.  The signs that she was about to be proven correct had been turning up everywhere.  When Charles Kaldec of Forbes reminded us – yet again – of President Obama’s willful refusal to seriously consider the advice of the former Chair of his Council of Economic Advisers, it became apparent that something was about to happen  .  .  .

On Friday morning, the highly-anticipated non-farm payrolls report for April was released by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  Although economists had been anticipating an increase of 165,000 jobs during the past month, the report disclosed that only 115,000 jobs were added.  In other words, the headline number was 50,000 less than the anticipated figure, missing economists’ expectations by a whopping 31 percent.  The weak 115,000 total failed to match the 120,000 jobs added in March.  Worse yet, even if payrolls were expanding at twice that rate, it would take more than five years to significantly reduce the jobs backlog and create new jobs to replace the 5.3 million lost during the recession.

Because this is an election year, Republicans are highlighting the ongoing unemployment crisis as a failure of the Obama Presidency.  On Friday evening’s CNN program, Anderson Cooper 360, economist Paul Krugman insisted that this crisis has resulted from Republican intransigence.  Bohemian Grove delegate David Gergen rebutted Krugman’s claim by emphasizing that Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus program was inadequate to address the task of bringing unemployment back to pre-crisis levels.  What annoyed me about Gergen’s response was his dishonest implication that President Obama’s semi-stimulus was Christina Romer’s brainchild.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The stimulus program proposed by Romer would have involved a more significant, $1.8 trillion investment.  Beyond that, the fact that unemployment continues for so many millions of people who lost their jobs during the recession is precisely because of Barack Obama’s decision to ignore Christina Romer.  I have been groaning about that decision for a long time, as I discussed here and here.

My February 13 discussion of Noam Scheiber’s book, The Escape Artists, demonstrated how abso-fucking-lutely wrong David Gergen was when he tried to align Christina Romer with Obama’s stimulus:

The book tells the tale of a President in a struggle to create a centrist persona, with no roadmap of his own.  In fact, it was Obama’s decision to follow the advice of Peter Orszag, to the exclusion of the opinions offered by Christina Romer and Larry Summers – which prolonged the unemployment crisis.

*   *   *

The Escape Artists takes us back to the pivotal year of 2009 – Obama’s first year in the White House.  Noam Scheiber provided us with a taste of his new book by way of an article published in The New Republic entitled, “Obama’s Worst Year”.  Scheiber gave the reader an insider’s look at Obama’s clueless indecision at the fork in the road between deficit hawkishness vs. economic stimulus.  Ultimately, Obama decided to maintain the illusion of centrism by following the austerity program suggested by Peter Orszag:

BACK IN THE SUMMER of 2009, David Axelrod, the president’s top political aide, was peppering White House economist Christina Romer with questions in preparation for a talk-show appearance.  With unemployment nearing 10 percent, many commentators on the left were second-guessing the size of the original stimulus, and so Axelrod asked if it had been big enough.  “Abso-fucking-lutely not,” Romer responded.  She said it half-jokingly, but the joke was that she would use the line on television.  She was dead serious about the sentiment.  Axelrod did not seem amused.

For Romer, the crusade was a lonely one.  While she believed the economy needed another boost in order to recover, many in the administration were insisting on cuts.  The chief proponent of this view was budget director Peter Orszag.  Worried that the deficit was undermining the confidence of businessmen, Orszag lobbied to pare down the budget in August, six months ahead of the usual budget schedule.      .   .   .

The debate was not only a question of policy.  It was also about governing style – and, in a sense, about the very nature of the Obama presidency.  Pitching a deficit-reduction plan would be a concession to critics on the right, who argued that the original stimulus and the health care bill amounted to liberal overreach.  It would be premised on the notion that bipartisan compromise on a major issue was still possible.  A play for more stimulus, on the other hand, would be a defiant action, and Obama clearly recognized this.  When Romer later urged him to double-down, he groused, “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”

That’s a fine example of great leadership – isn’t it?  “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”  In 2009, the fierce urgency of the unemployment and economic crises demanded a leader who would not feel intimidated by the sheeple’s erroneous belief that the Economic Recovery Act had not “worked”.

Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men is another source which contradicts David Gergen’s attempt to characterize Obama’s stimulus as Romer’s baby.  Last fall, Berkeley economics professor, Brad DeLong had been posting and discussing excerpts from the book at his own website, Grasping Reality With Both Hands.  On September 19, Professor DeLong posted a passage from Suskind’s book, which revealed Obama’s expressed belief (in November of 2009) that high unemployment was a result of productivity gains in the economy.  Both Larry Summers (Chair of the National Economic Council) and Christina Romer (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers) were shocked and puzzled by Obama’s ignorance on this subject:

“What was driving unemployment was clearly deficient aggregate demand,” Romer said.  “We wondered where this could be coming from.  We both tried to convince him otherwise.  He wouldn’t budge.”

Obama’s willful refusal to heed the advice of Cristina Romer has facilitated the persistence of our nation’s unemployment problem.  As Ron Suskind remarked in the previously-quoted passage:

The implications were significant.  If Obama felt that 10 percent unemployment was the product of sound, productivity-driven decisions by American business, then short-term government measures to spur hiring were not only futile but unwise.

There you have it.  Despite the efforts of Obama’s apologists to blame Larry Summers or others on the President’s economic team for persistent unemployment, it wasn’t simply a matter of “the buck stopping” on the President’s desk.  Obama himself  has been the villain, hypocritically advocating a strategy of “trickle-down economics” – in breach of  his campaign promise to do the exact opposite.

As Election Day approaches, it becomes increasingly obvious that the unemployment situation will persist through autumn – and it could get worse.  This is not Christina Romer’s fault.  It is President Obama’s legacy.  Christina Romer was right and President Obama was wrong.


 

Failed Leadership

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July 8, 2010

Exactly one year ago (on July 7, 2009) I pointed out that it would eventually become necessary for President Obama to propose a second economic stimulus package because he didn’t get it right the first time.  As far back as January of 2009, the President was ignoring all of the warnings from economists such as Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who forewarned that the proposed $850 billion economic recovery package would be inadequate.  Mr. Obama also ignored the Bloomberg News report of February 12, 2009 concerning its survey of 50 economists, which described Obama’s stimulus plan as “insufficient”.  Last year, the public and the Congress had the will – not to mention the sense of urgency – to approve a robust stimulus initiative.  As we now approach mid-term elections, the politicians whom Barry Ritholtz describes as “deficit chicken hawks” – elected officials with a newfound concern about budget deficits – are resisting any further stimulus efforts.  Worse yet, as Ryan Grim reported for the Huffington Post, President Obama is now ignoring his economic advisors and listening, instead, to his political advisors, who are urging him to avoid any further economic rescue initiatives.

Ryan Grim’s article revealed that there has been a misunderstanding of the polling data that has kept politicians running scared on the debt issue.  A recent poll revealed that responses to polling questions concerning sovereign debt are frequently interpreted by the respondents as limited to the issue of China’s increasing role as our primary creditor:

The Democrats gathered on Thursday morning to dig into the national poll, which was paid for by the Alliance for American Manufacturing and done by Democrat Mark Mellman and Republican Whit Ayers.

It hints at an answer to why people are so passionate when asked by pollsters about the deficit:  It’s about jobs, China and American decline.  If the job situation improves, worries about the deficit will dissipate.  Asking whether Congress should address the deficit or the jobless crisis, therefore, is the wrong question.

*   *   *

About 45 percent of respondents said the biggest problem is that “we are too deep in debt to China,” the highest-ranking concern, while 58 percent said the U.S. is no longer the strongest economy, with China being the overwhelming alternative identified by people.

As I pointed out on May 27, even Larry Summers gets it now – providing the following advice that Obama is ignoring because our President is motivated more by fear than by a will to lead:

In areas where the government has a significant opportunity for impact, it would be pennywise and pound foolish not to take advantage of our capacity to encourage near-term job creation.

*   *   *

Consider the package currently under consideration in Congress to extend unemployment and health benefits to those out of work and support to states to avoid budget cuts as a case in point.

It would be an act of fiscal shortsightedness to break from the longstanding practice of extending these provisions at a moment when sustained economic recovery is so crucial to our medium-term fiscal prospects.

Since our President prefers to be a follower rather than a leader, I suggest that he follow the sound advice of The Washington Post’s Matt Miller:

I come before you, in other words, a deficit hawk to the core.  But it is the height of economic folly — and socially dangerous, in my view — to elevate deficit reduction as a goal today over boosting jobs and growth.  Especially when there are ways to goose the economy while at the same time legislating changes that move us toward fiscal sanity once we’re past this stagnation.

Mr. Miller presented a fantastic plan, which he described as “a radically centrist ‘Jobs Now, Deficits Soon’ package”.  He concluded the piece with this painfully realistic assessment:

The fact that nothing like this will happen, therefore, is both depressing and instructive.  Republicans are content to glide toward November slamming Democrats without offering answers of their own.  Democrats who now know the first stimulus was too puny feel they’ll be clobbered for trying more in the Tea Party era.

The leadership void brought to us by the Obama Presidency was the subject of yet another great essay by Paul Farrell of MarketWatch.  He supported his premise — that President Obama has capitulated to Wall Street’s “Conspiracy of Weasels” — with the perspectives of twelve different commentators.

The damage has already been done.  Any hope that our President will experience a sudden conversion to authentic populism is pure fantasy.  There will be no more federal efforts to resuscitate the job market, to facilitate the availability of credit to small businesses or to extend benefits to the unemployed.  The federal government’s only concern is to preserve the well-being of those five sacred Wall Street banks because if any single one failed – such an event would threaten our entire financial system.  Nothing else matters.