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Barack Oblivious

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As I’ve been discussing here for quite a while, commentators from across the political spectrum have been busy criticizing the job performance of President Obama.  The mood of most critics seems to have progressed from disappointment to shock.  The situation eventually reached the point where, regardless of what one thought about the job Obama was doing – at least the President could provide us with a good speech.  That changed on Monday, August 8 – when Obama delivered his infamous “debt downgrade” speech – in the wake of the controversial decision by Standard and Poor’s to lower America’s credit rating from AAA to AA+.  This reaction from Joe Nocera of The New York Times was among the more restrained:

When did President Obama become such a lousy speech-maker?  His remarks on Monday afternoon, aimed at calming the markets, were flat and uninspired — as they have consistently been throughout the debt ceiling crisis.  “No matter what some agency may say,” he said, ”we’ve always been and always will be a triple-A country.”  Is that really the best he could do?  The markets, realizing he had little or nothing to offer, continued their swoon.  What is particularly frustrating is that the president seems to have so little to say on the subject of job creation, which should be his most pressing concern.

Actually, President Obama should have been concerned about job creation back in January of 2009.  For some reason, this President had been pushing ahead with his own agenda, while oblivious to the concerns of America’s middle class.  His focus on what eventually became an enfeebled healthcare bill caused him to ignore this country’s most serious problem:  unemployment.  Our economy is 70% consumer-driven.  Because the twenty-five million Americans who lost their jobs since the inception of the financial crisis have remained unemployed — goods aren’t being sold.  This hurts manufacturers, retailers and shipping companies.  With twenty-five million Americans persistently unemployed, the tax base is diminished – meaning that there is less money available to pay down America’s debt.  The people Barry Ritholtz calls the “deficit chicken hawks” (politicians who oppose any government spending programs which don’t benefit their own constituents) refuse to allow the federal government to get involved in short-term “job creation”.  This “savings” depletes taxable revenue and increases government debt.  President Obama — the master debater from Harvard – has refused to challenge the “deficit chicken hawks” to debate the need for any sort of short-term jobs program.

Bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO recently lamented this administration’s obliviousness to the need for government involvement in short-term job creation:

Additionally and immediately, however, government must take a leading role in job creation.  Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed.  The private sector is the source of long-term job creation but in the short term, no rational observer can believe that global or even small businesses will invest here when the labor over there is so much cheaper.  That is why trillions of dollars of corporate cash rest impotently on balance sheets awaiting global – non-U.S. – investment opportunities.  Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.

*   *   *

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is.  Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009.

Back in July of 2009 – five months after the economic stimulus bill was passed – I pointed out how many prominent economists – including at least one of Obama’s closest advisors, had been emphasizing that the stimulus was inadequate and that we could eventually face a double-dip recession:

A July 7 report by Shamim Adam for Bloomberg News quoted Laura Tyson, an economic advisor to President Obama, as stating that last February’s $787 billion economic stimulus package was “a bit too small”.  Ms. Tyson gave this explanation:

“The economy is worse than we forecast on which the stimulus program was based,” Tyson, who is a member of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory board, told the Nomura Equity Forum.  “We probably have already 2.5 million more job losses than anticipated.”

Economist Brad DeLong recently provided us with a little background on the thinking that had been taking place within the President’s inner circle during 2009:

In the late spring of 2009, Barack Obama had five economic policy principals: Tim Geithner, who thought Obama had done enough to boost demand and needed to turn to long-run deficit reduction; Ben Bernanke, who thought that the Fed had done enough to boost demand and that the administration needed to turn to deficit reduction; Peter Orszag, who thought the administration needed to turn to deficit reduction immediately and could also use that process to pass (small) further stimulus; Larry Summers, who thought that long-run deficit reduction could wait until the recovery was well-established and that the administration needed to push for more demand stimulus; and Christina Romer, who thought that long-run deficit reduction should wait until the recovery was well-established and that the administration needed to push for much more demand stimulus.

Now Romer, Summers, and Orszag are gone.  Their successors – Goolsbee, Sperling, and Lew – are extraordinary capable civil servants but are not nearly as loud policy voices and lack the substantive issue knowledge of their predecessors.  The two who are left, Geithner and Bernanke, are the two who did not see the world as it was in mid-2009.  And they do not seem to have recalibrated their beliefs about how the world works – they still think that they were right in mid-2009, or should have been right, or something.

I fear that they still do not see the situation as it really is.

And I do not see anyone in the American government serving as a counterbalance.

Meanwhile, the dreaded “double-dip” recession is nearly at hand.  Professor DeLong recently posted a chart on his blog, depicting daily Treasury real yield curve rates under the heading, “Treasury Real Interest Rates Now Negative Out to Ten Years…”  He added this comment:

If this isn’t a market prediction of a double-dip and a lost decade (or more), I don’t know what would be.  At least Hoover was undertaking interventions in financial markets–and not just blathering about how cutting spending was the way to call the Confidence Fairy…

President Obama has been oblivious to our nation’s true economic predicament since 2009.  Even if there were any Hope that his attentiveness to this matter might Change – at this point, it’s probably too late.


 

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Unwanted Transparency

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Immediately after assuming office, President Obama promised to provide a greater degree of transparency from his administration:

Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

Did you really believe that?  Do you remember Jane Mayer – author of that great book, The Dark Side, which exposed the controversial “enhanced interrogation techniques”?  Well, she just wrote an article for The New Yorker, discussing the Obama administration’s use of the Espionage Act of 1917 to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national security leaks.  At the outset of the article, Ms. Mayer made this observation:

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book “Necessary Secrets” (2010), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history – even more so than Nixon.”

Meanwhile, another sort of unwanted transparency is catching up with the Obama administration:  transparent motives.  Many commentators are finally facing-up to the reality that Obama never gave a damn about the unemployment crisis.  I have repeatedly emphasized that President Obama’s February, 2009 decision to “punt” on the economic stimulus program – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – was a mistake, similar in magnitude to that of allowing Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora.  In his own “Tora Bora moment”, President Obama decided to rely on the advice of the very people who helped cause the financial crisis, by doing more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.

A recent interview with economist Tim Duy focused on the inadequacy of the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009:

What went wrong with stimulus?  Why does unemployment remain so high?

I don’t think anything “went wrong” with the stimulus, other than it simply wasn’t enough to fill the depth of the economic hole caused by the recession.  There was simply a lack of political willpower to fully acknowledge the depth of the problem and bring to bear the appropriate resources.  The result is an economy that is not bouncing back quickly enough to close the output gap and create sufficient job growth to drive the unemployment rate down lower at a faster pace.

Is the economy not weak enough to justify more stimulus?  Or do policy makers think that deficit spending is not able to generate more jobs?

Yes, the economy is weak enough to justify additional stimulus, and the persistently low rates of government debt should prove that current fears of deficit spending are unjustified.  Some policymakers appear to believe that a commitment to fiscal austerity will in fact generate more job growth, but this is nonsensical –  austerity would only aggravate the existing challenges (as it has in Greece).  There is currently no constraint that prevents more fiscal stimulus from being effective in promoting additional economic growth.  Longer run, yes, the US federal budget does need to be addressed, but letting growth stagnate now will only intensify that challenge in the future. Policymakers, however, appear enamoured with the idea that these challenges need to be addressed now, and this attitude poses another risk to the recovery.

I want to focus on what Professor Duy described as a “lack of willpower”.  That lack of willpower was rooted in a lack of authenticity.  President Obama was never concerned about what most of us would consider “economic recovery” – reducing unemployment to just below five percent.  Obama’s goal was to do just enough to avoid another Great Depression.  Once that goal was accomplished, it was time to move on to other things.  My cynicism on this subject was validated in a recent essay by Mark Provost for Truthout, entitled, “Why the Rich Love High Unemployment”.  In fact, Provost’s article was met with such widespread enthusiasm that it was republished in its entirety on the following websites:  Naked Capitalism, Angry Bear and The Economic Populist.  Here are some key points from the piece:

Obama’s advisers often congratulate themselves for avoiding another Great Depression – an assertion not amenable to serious analysis or debate.  A better way to evaluate their claims is to compare the US economy to other rich countries over the last few years.

On the basis of sustaining economic growth, the United States is doing better than nearly all advanced economies.

*   *   *

But when it comes to jobs, US policymakers fall short of their rosy self-evaluations.

*   *   *

The gap between economic growth and job creation reflects three separate but mutually reinforcing factors:  US corporate governance, Obama’s economic policies and the deregulation of US labor markets.

*   *   *

Obama’s lopsided recovery also reflects lopsided government intervention. Apart from all the talk about jobs, the Obama administration never supported a concrete employment plan.  The stimulus provided relief, but it was too small and did not focus on job creation.

The administration’s problem is not a question of economics, but a matter of values and priorities.

Mark Provost’s essay featured this infamous quote from a Washington Post article written by Steven Rattner (Obama’s “car czar” during 2009 – whose task force was overseen by “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Larry Summers):

Perversely, the nagging high jobless rate reflects two of the most promising attributes of the American economy:  its flexibility and its productivity.  Eliminating jobs – with all the wrenching human costs – raises productivity and, thereby, competitiveness (the president’s new favorite word).  In the long run, increasing productivity is the only route to superior competitiveness.

*   *   *

That kind of efficiency is perhaps our most precious economic asset.  However tempting it may be, we need to resist tinkering with the labor market.  Policy proposals aimed too directly at raising employment may well collaterally end up dragging on productivity. And weak productivity would exacerbate the downward pressure on wages that caused the last decade to be the first in our history in which wages (after adjustment for inflation) declined.

In other words, productivity is more important than those pesky “wrenching human costs”.  Too bad there just isn’t some kind of spray or ointment for those things!  This attitude exemplified what Chris Hedges discussed in his book, Death of the Liberal Class.  In a recent article for Truthdig, Chris Hedges emphasized how the liberal class “abandoned the human values that should have remained at the core of its activism”:

The liberal class, despite becoming an object of widespread public scorn, prefers the choreographed charade.  It will decry the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or call for universal health care, but continue to defend and support a Democratic Party that has no intention of disrupting the corporate machine.  As long as the charade is played, the liberal class can hold itself up as the conscience of the nation without having to act.  It can maintain its privileged economic status.  It can continue to live in an imaginary world where democratic reform and responsible government exist.  It can pretend it has a voice and influence in the corridors of power.  But the uselessness and irrelevancy of the liberal class are not lost on the tens of millions of Americans who suffer the indignities of the corporate state.  And this is why liberals are rightly despised by the working class and the poor.

To repeat an important statement from Mark Provost’s essay:

The administration’s problem is not a question of economics, but a matter of values and priorities.

The unemployment crisis is destined to continue for several years – thanks to the administration’s abandonment of those human values discussed by Chris Hedges.


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