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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.


 

Looking Beyond The Smokescreen

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We bloggers have the mainstream news outlets to thank for our readership.  The inane, single-minded focus on a particular story, simply because it brings a huge audience to one’s competitors, regularly provides the driving force behind programming decisions made by those news producers.  As a result, America’s more discerning, critical thinkers have turned to internet-based news sources (and blogs) to familiarize themselves with the more important stories of these turbulent times.

Robert Oak, at The Economic Populist website, recently expressed his outrage concerning the fact that a certain over-publicized murder trial has eclipsed coverage of more important matters:

For over a week we’ve heard nothing else by the press but Casey Anthony.  Imagine what would happen if Nancy Grace used her never ending tape loop rants of hatred against tot mom to spew and prattle about the U.S. economy? Instead of some bizarre post traumatic public stress disorder, stuck in a rut, obsessive thought mantra, repeating ad nauseum, she’s guilty, we might hear our politicians are selling this nation down the river.

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Folks, don’t you think the economy is just a little more important and actually impacts your lives than one crime and trial?  The reality is any story which really impacts the daily lives of working America is not covered or spun to fiction.

The fact that “our politicians are selling this nation down the river” has not been overlooked by Brett Arends at MarketWatch.  He recently wrote a great essay entitled, “The Next, Worse Financial Crisis”, wherein he discussed ten reasons “why we are doomed to repeat 2008”.  Of the ten reasons, my favorite was number 7, “The ancient regime is in the saddle”:

I have to laugh whenever I hear Republicans ranting that Barack Obama is a “liberal” or a “socialist” or a communist.  Are you kidding me?  Obama is Bush 44.  He’s a bit more like the old man than the younger one.  But look at who’s still running the economy: Bernanke. Geithner. Summers. Goldman Sachs. J.P. Morgan Chase. We’ve had the same establishment in charge since at least 1987, when Paul Volcker stood down as Fed chairman.  Change?  What “change”?  (And even the little we had was too much for Wall Street, which bought itself a new, more compliant Congress in 2010.)

As the 2012 campaign season begins, one need not look too far to find criticism of President Obama. Nevertheless, as Brett Arends explained, most of that criticism is a re-hash of the same, tired talking points we have been hearing since Obama took office.  We are only now beginning to hear a broader chorus of pushback from commentators who see Obama as the President I have often described as the “Dissapointer-In-Chief”.  Marshall Auerback wasn’t so restrained in his recent appraisal of Obama’s maladroit response to our economic crisis, choosing instead to ratify a well-deserved putdown, which most commentators felt obligated to denounce:

It may not have been the most felicitous choice of phrase, but Mark Halperin’s characterization of Barack Obama was not far off the mark, even if he did get suspended for it.  The President is a dick, at least as far as his understanding of basic economics goes.  Obama’s perverse fixation with deficit reduction uber alles takes him to areas where even George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan dared not to venture.  Medicare and Social Security are now on the table.  In fact entitlements of all kinds (excluding the myriad of subsidies still present to Wall Street) are all deemed fair game.

To what end?  Deficit control and deficit reduction, despite the fact that at present, the US has massive excess capacity including millions of unemployed and underemployed, a negative contribution from net exports, and a stagnant private spending growth horizon.  Yet the President marches on, oblivious to the harm his policies would introduce to an already bleeding economy, using the tired analogy between a household and a sovereign government to support his tired arguments.  It may have been impolitic, but “dick” is what immediately sprang to mind as one listened incredulously to the President’s press conference, which went from the sublime to the ridiculous.

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Let’s state it again:  households do not have the power to levy taxes, to issue the currency we use, and to demand that those taxes are paid in the currency it issues.  Rather, households are users of the currency issued by the sovereign government.  Here the same distinction applies to private businesses, which are also users of the currency.  There’s a big difference, as all us on this blog have repeatedly stressed:  Users of a currency do face an external constraint in a way that a sovereign issuer of its currency does not.

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The President has the causation here totally backward.  A growing economy, characterized by rising employment, rising incomes and rising capacity utilization causes the deficit to shrink, not the other way around.  Rising prosperity means rising tax revenues and reduced social welfare payments, whereas there is an overwhelming body of evidence to support the opposite – cutting budget deficits when there is slack private spending growth and external deficits will erode growth and destroy net jobs.

The increasing, widespread awareness of Obama’s mishandling of the economic crisis has resulted in a great cover story for New York Magazine by Frank Rich, entitled, “Obama’s Original Sin”.  While discussing Rich’s article, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism lamented the fact that Obama is – again – the beneficiary of undeserved restraint:

Even Rich’s solid piece treats Obama more kindly that he should be.  He depicts the President as too easily won over by “the best and the brightest” in the guise of folks like Robert Rubin and his protégé Timothy Geithner.

We think this characterization is far too charitable.  Obama had a window in time in which he could have acted, decisively, to rein the financial services in, and he and his aides chose to let it pass and throw their lot in with the banksters.  That fatal decision has severely constrained their freedom of action, as we explain .  .  .

Miscreants such as Casey Anthony serve as convenient decoys for public anger.  Hopefully, by Election Day, the voters will realize that Casey Anthony isn’t to blame for the pathetic state of America’s economy and they will vote accordingly.


 

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Troublesome Creatures

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A recent piece by Glynnis MacNicol of The Business Insider website led me to the conclusion that Shepard Smith deserves an award.  You might recognize Shep Smith as The Normal Guy at Fox News.  In case you haven’t heard about it yet, a controversy has erupted over a 20-minute crank telephone call made to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker by a man who identified himself as David Koch, one of two billionaire brothers, famous for bankrolling Republican politicians.  The caller was actually blogger Ian Murphy, who goes by the name, Buffalo Beast.  In a televised discussion with Juan Williams concerning the controversy surrounding Wisconsin Governor Walker, Shep Smith focused on the ugly truth that the Koch brothers are out to “bust labor”.  Here are Smith’s remarks as they appeared at The Wire blog:

It’s all political isn’t it?  Isn’t it just 100% politics? … Have you looked at the list of the top 10 donors to political campaigns?  Seven of those 10 donate to Republicans.  The other three that remain of those top 10, they all donate to Democrats and they are all unions.  Bust the unions, it’s over … . And this started when?  It started with the Koch brothers.  The Koch brothers were organizing…

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I’m not taking a side on this, I’m telling you what’s going on … The facts!  But people don’t want to hear the facts … let them get angry, facts are troublesome creatures from time to time.  The Koch brothers, and others, were organized to bust labor, it’s what big business wants to do … this isn’t a new concept.  So they gave a bunch of money to the governor’s campaign.  The governor’s campaign is over.  Now, away we go!  We’re going to try to bust this union up, and that’s what they’re doing … this is political and everyone in the middle is a pawn.

Those “troublesome creatures” called facts have been finding their way into the news to a refreshing degree lately.  Emotional rhetoric has replaced news reporting to such an extreme level that most people seem to have accepted the premise that facts are relative to one’s perception of reality.  The lyrics to “Crosseyed and Painless” by the Talking Heads (written more than 30 years ago) seem to have been a prescient commentary about this situation:

Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out

Budgetary disputes are now resolved on an emotional battlefield where facts usually take a back seat to ideology.  Despite this trend, there are occasional commentaries focused on fact-based themes.  One recent example came from David Leonhardt of The New York Times, entitled “Why Budget Cuts Don’t Bring Prosperity”.  The article began with the observation that because so many in Congress believe that budget cuts are the path to national prosperity, the only remaining question concerns how deeply spending should be cut this year.  Mr. Leonhardt provided those misled “leaders” with the facts:

The fundamental problem after a financial crisis is that businesses and households stop spending money, and they remain skittish for years afterward.  Consider that new-vehicle sales, which peaked at 17 million in 2005, recovered to only 12 million last year.  Single-family home sales, which peaked at 7.5 million in 2005, continued falling last year, to 4.6 million.  No wonder so many businesses are uncertain about the future.

Without the government spending of the last two years — including tax cuts — the economy would be in vastly worse shape.  Likewise, if the federal government begins laying off tens of thousands of workers now, the economy will clearly suffer.

That’s the historical lesson of postcrisis austerity movements.  The history is a rich one, too, because people understandably react to a bubble’s excesses by calling for the reverse.  When Franklin Roosevelt was running for president in 1932, he repeatedly called for a balanced budget.

But no matter how morally satisfying austerity may be, it’s the wrong answer.

Leonhardt’s  objective analysis drew this response from Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism:

Did a memo go out?   Leonhardt almost always hews to neoclassical orthodoxy.  This is a big change for him.

Those “troublesome creatures” called facts became the subject of an opinion piece about the budget, written by Bill Schneider for Politico.  While dissecting the emotional motivation responsible for “a dangerous political arms race where the stakes keep escalating”, Schneider set about isolating the fact-based signal from the emotional noise clouding the budget debate:

Many of the programs targeted for big cuts by the House Republicans have a suspiciously ideological tinge:  Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Protection Agency, funds to implement the new health care reform law, National Public Radio, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, President Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps program, money for a White House climate change czar.  The Washington Post calls the House budget “an assault on bedrock Democratic priorities.’’

The public is certainly worried about the deficit.  But do people believe the deficit is a crisis demanding immediate and radical action?  That’s not so clear.

In a Pew Research Center poll taken this month, the public was split over whether the federal government’s priority should be reducing the deficit (49 percent) or spending to help the economic recovery (46 percent).  What economic issue worries people the most? Jobs tops the list (44 percent). Fewer than half that say the deficit (19 percent).

Yes, there is an economic crisis in the country.  The crisis is jobs.  So Republicans have to argue that spending cuts will create jobs — an argument that mystifies many economists.

Let’s hope that those “troublesome creatures” keep turning up at debates, “town hall” meetings and in commentaries.  If they cause widespread allergic reactions, let nature run its course.


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