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Struggles of a Passive Centrist

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In September of 2010, I wrote a piece entitled, “Where Obama Went Wrong”.  It began with this statement:  “One could write an 800-page book on this subject.”  Noam Scheiber has just written that book in only 368 pages.  It’s called The Escape Artists and it is scheduled for release at the end of this month.  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 following graph from The Economic Populist website depicts the persistence of unemployment in America:

Noam Scheiber’s new book piqued my interest because, back in July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled “The Second Stimulus”, which began with this thought:

It’s a subject that many people are talking about, but not many politicians want to discuss.  It appears as though a second economic stimulus package will be necessary to save our sinking economy and get people back to work.  Because of the huge deficits already incurred in responding to the financial meltdown, along with the $787 billion price tag for the first stimulus package and because of the President’s promise to get healthcare reform enacted, there aren’t many in Congress who are willing to touch this subject right now, although some are.

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”.  Obama could have educated the American people by directing their attention to a June 3, 2009 essay by Keith Hennessey (former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush) which described the Recovery Act as “effective”.

Noam Scheiber’s New Republic article detailed Obama’s evolution from inexperienced negotiator to President with “newfound boldness”:

FOR TWO AND A HALF YEARS, Obama had been hatching proposals with an eye toward winning over the opposition.  In most cases, all it had gotten him was more extreme demands from Republicans and not even a pretense of bipartisan support.  Now, after the searing experience of the deficit deal, he still wanted reasonable, centrist policies.  But he was done trying to fit them to the ever-shifting conservative zeitgeist.  When he finally turned back to jobs in August, he told his aides not to “self-edit” proposals to improve their chances of passing the Republican House.  “He pushed us to make sure this was not simply a predesigned legislative compromise,” one recalls.

Many readers will be surprised to learn that Larry Summers had aligned himself with Christina Romer by advocating for additional fiscal stimulus during the summer of 2009.  In fact, Ms. Romer herself has already confirmed this.  The Romer-Summers alliance for stimulus was also discussed in Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men.

As for the stimulus program itself, a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? provided the most even-handed analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.  Mike Grabell gave us a glimpse of his new book with an article which appeared in The New York Times.  The piece was cross-posted to the ProPublica website.  Keith Hennesssey’s prescient observations about the shortcomings of that program, which he discussed  in June of 2009, were somewhat consistent with those discussed by Mike Grabell, particularly on the subject of “shovel-ready” programs.  Here is what Keith Hennessey said, while supporting his argument with the observations of Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf:

In fact, the infrastructure spending in the stimulus law will peak in fiscal year 2011, which goes from October 1, 2010 to September 30, 2011.  That’s too late from a macro perspective.

The Director further points out that the 2009 stimulus law created many new programs.  This slows spend-out, as it takes time to create and ramp up the new programs.

The Administration has made much of working with federal and state bureaucracies to find “shovel-ready” projects to accelerate infrastructure spending.  All of my conversations with budget analysts suggest this claim is tremendously overblown, and Director Elmendorf asks, “Is this practical on a large scale?”

On February 11, 2012, Mike Grabell said this:

But the stimulus ultimately failed to bring about a strong, sustainable recovery.  Money was spread far and wide rather than dedicated to programs with the most bang for the buck.  “Shovel-ready” projects, those that would put people to work right away, took too long to break ground.  Investments in worthwhile long-term projects, on the other hand, were often rushed to meet arbitrary deadlines, and the resulting shoddy outcomes tarnished the projects’ image.

The Economic Recovery Act of 2009 will surely become a central subject of debate during the current Presidential election campaign.  Regardless of what you hear from partisan bloviators, Messrs. Hennessey and Garbell have provided you with reliable guides to the unvarnished truth on this subject.



 

I Knew This Would Happen

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May 27, 2010

It was almost a year ago when I predicted that President Obama would eventually announce the need for a “second stimulus”.  Once the decision was made to drink the Keynesian Kool-Aid with the implementation of last year’s economic stimulus package, we were faced with the question of how much to drink.  As I expected, our President took the half-assed, yet “moderate” approach of limiting the stimulus effort to less than what was admitted as the cost of the TARP program, as well as approving  the waste of stimulus funds on “pork” projects, ill-suited to stimulate economic recovery.  In that July 9, 2009 piece, I discussed the fact that liberal economist, Paul Krugman, was not alone in claiming that $787 billion would not be an adequate amount to jump-start the economy back to firing on all cylinders.  I pointed out that a survey of economists conducted by Bloomberg News in February of 2009 revealed a consensus opinion that an $800 billion stimulus would prove to be inadequate.  The February 12, 2009 Bloomberg article by Timothy Homan and Alex Tanzi revealed that:

Even as Obama aims to create 3.5 million jobs with a stimulus plan, economists foresee an unemployment rate exceeding 8 percent through next year.

As we now reach the mid-point of that “next year”, the unemployment rate is at 9.9 percent.  Those economists were right.  Beyond that, some highly-respected economists, including Robert Shiller, are discussing the risk of our experiencing a “double-dip” recession.  As a result, Larry Summers, Director of the President’s National Economic Council, is advocating the passage of a new set of spending measures, referred to as the “second stimulus”.  To help offset the expense, the President has asked Congress to grant him powers to cut unnecessary spending, as would be accomplished with a “line item veto”.  The Financial Times described the situation this way :

The combined announcements were made amid rising concern that centrist Democrats, or those representing marginal districts, might vote against the spending measures, which include more loans for small businesses, an extension of unemployment insurance and aid to states to prevent hundreds of thousands more teachers from being laid off.

*   *   *

Taken together, Mr Summers’s speech and Mr Obama’s announcement show an administration walking a fine line between the need to signal strong medium-term fiscal discipline and not jeopardising what they fear may be a fragile recovery.

Because they couldn’t get it right the first time, the President and his administration have placed themselves in the position of seeking piecemeal stimulus measures.  If they had done it right, we would probably be enjoying economic recovery and a boost in the ranks of the employed at this point.  As a result, this half-assed, piecemeal approach will likely prove more costly than doing it right on the first try.  With mid-term elections approaching, deficit hawks have their knives sharpened for anything that can be described as an “entitlement” (unless that entitlement inures to the benefit of a favored Wall Street institution).  Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post challenged the logic of the deficit hawks with this argument:

Those who oppose the jobs bills in the House and Senate this week should be compelled to answer some questions, starting with:  Absent more stimulus, what do they see as the plausible engine of economic recovery?  What effect will laying off as many as 300,000 teachers have on the education of American children?  And, more elementally, don’t they know there’s a recession on?

Marshall Auerback of the Roosevelt Institute picked up where Harold Meyerson left off, as this recent posting at the New Deal 2.0 website demonstrates:

In fact, full employment is also the best “financial stability” reform we could implement, because with jobs growth comes higher income growth and a corresponding ability to service debt.  That means less write-offs for banks and a correspondingly smaller need to provide government bailouts.

Fiscal austerity, by contrast, won’t cut it.  Our elites seem think that you can cut “wasteful government spending” (that is, reduce private demand further) and cut wages and hence private incomes and not expect major multiplier effects to make things significantly worse.  Of course, that “wasteful”, “unsustainable” spending never seems to apply to the Department of  Defense, where we always seem to be able to appropriate a few billion, whenever necessary.  “Affordability” principles never extend to the Pentagon, it appears.

The fact that we are still in the midst of a severe recession (rather than a robust economic recovery as is often claimed) accounts for the rationale asserted by Larry Summers in advocating a second stimulus amounting to approximately $200 billion in spending measures.  Here’s how Summers explained the proposal in a May 24 speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies:

It has in recent years been essential for the federal deficit to increase as the economy has gone into recession and has been severely constrained by demand.

And I cannot agree with those who suggest that it somehow threatens the future to provide truly temporary, high-bang-for-the-buck jobs and growth measures.

Rather, assuring as rapid a recovery as possible strengthens our future economy, our future prosperity, with many benefits, including a greater ability to manage our debts.

On the other hand, those who recognize the fiscal and growth benefits of strong expansionary policies must also recognize that it is simultaneously desirable to provide confidence that deficits will come down to sustainable levels as recovery is achieved.  Such confidence both spurs recovery by reducing capital costs and reduces the risk of financial accidents.

To put the point differently:  It is not possible to imagine sound budgets in the absence of economic growth and solid economic performance.

*   *   *

It is important to recognize that the ultimate consequences of stimulus for indebtedness depend critically on the macroeconomic conditions.  When the economy is demand constrained, the impact of a dollar of tax cuts or expansionary investment will be at its highest and the impact on deficits at its lowest.
*   *   *

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.   This explains the logic of the Recovery Act’s success and the rationale for taking additional targeted actions to increase confidence in our economic recovery.

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.

So, here we are at the introduction of the second stimulus plan.  Despite the denial by President Obama that he would seek a second stimulus, he has Larry Summers doing just that.  Last year, the public and the Congress had the will – not to mention the sense of urgency – to approve such measures.  This time around, it might not happen and that would be due to the leadership flaw I observed last year:

President Obama should have done it right the first time.  His penchant for compromise — simply for the sake of compromise itself — is bound to bite him in the ass on this issue, as it surely will on health care reform — should he abandon the “public option”.  The new President made the mistake of assuming that if he established a reputation for being flexible, his opposition would be flexible in return.  The voting public will perceive this as weak leadership.  As a result, President Obama will need to re-invent this aspect of his public image before he can even consider presenting a second economic stimulus proposal.

At this point, Obama’s “flexibility” is often viewed by the voting public as a lack of existential authenticity, sincerity or — worse yet —  credibility.  As a result, I would expect to see more articles like the recent piece by Carol Lee at Politico, entitled, “Obama:  Day for ‘partnership’ passed”.

Here comes the makeover!






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