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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.



 

Obama On The Ropes

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You’ve been reading it everywhere and hearing it from scores of TV pundits:  The ongoing economic crisis could destroy President Obama’s hopes for a second term.  In a recent interview with Alexander Bolton of The Hill, former Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean warned that the economy is so bad that even Sarah Palin could defeat Barack Obama in 2012.  Dean’s statement was unequivocal:  “I think she could win.”

I no longer feel guilty about writing so many “I told you so” pieces about Obama’s failure to heed sane economic advice since the beginning of his term in the White House.  A chorus of commentators has begun singing that same tune.  In July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, wherein I predicted that our new President would realize that his economic stimulus program was inadequate because he followed the advice from the wrong people.  After quoting the criticisms of a few economists who warned (in January and February of 2009) that the proposed stimulus would be insufficient, I said this:

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.  He is now in the uncomfortable position of figuring out how and when he can roll out a second stimulus proposal.

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.

Stephanie Kelton recently provided us with an interesting reminiscence of that fateful time, in a piece she published on William Black’s New Economic Perspectives website:

Some of us saw this coming.  For example, Jamie Galbraith and Robert Reich warned, on a panel I organized in January 2009, that the stimulus package needed to be at least $1.3 trillion in order to create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.  Anything shy of that, they worried, would fail to sufficiently improve the economy, making Keynesian economics the subject of ridicule and scorn.

*   *   *

In July 2009, I wrote a post entitled, “Gift-Wrapping the White House for the GOP.” In it, I said:

“If President Obama wants a second term, he must join the growing chorus of voices calling for another stimulus and press forward with an ambitious program to create jobs and halt the foreclosure crisis.”

With the recent announcement of Austan Goolsbee’s planned departure from his brief stint as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, much has been written about Obama’s constant rejection of the “dissenting opinions” voiced by members of the President’s economics team, such as those expressed by Goolsbee and his predecessor, Christina Romer.  Obama chose, instead, to paint himself into a corner by following the misguided advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Ezra Klein of The Washington Post recently published some excerpts from a speech (pdf) delivered by Professor Romer at Stanford University in May of 2011.  At one point, she provided a glimpse of the acrimony, which often arose at meetings of the President’s economics team:

Like the Federal Reserve, the Administration and Congress should have done more in the fall of 2009 and early 2010 to aid the recovery.  I remember that fall of 2009 as a very frustrating one.  It was very clear to me that the economy was still struggling, but the will to do more to help it had died.

There was a definite split among the economics team about whether we should push for more fiscal stimulus, or switch our focus to the deficit.  A number of us tried to make the case that more action was desperately needed and would be effective.  Normally, meetings with the President were very friendly and free-wheeling.  He likes to hear both sides of an issue argued passionately.  But, about the fourth time we had the same argument over more stimulus in front of him, he had clearly had enough.  As luck would have it, the next day, a reporter asked him if he ever lost his temper.  He replied, “Yes, I let my economics team have it just yesterday.”

By May of 2010, even Larry Summers was discussing the need for further economic stimulus measures, which I discussed in a piece entitled, “I Knew This Would Happen”.  Unfortunately, most of the remedies suggested at that time were never enacted – and those that were undertaken, fell short of the desired goal.  Nevertheless, Larry Summers is back at it again, proposing a new round of stimulus measures, likely due to concern that Obama’s adherence to Summers’ failed economic policies could lead to the President’s defeat in 2012.  Jeff Mason and Caren Bohan of Reuters reported that Summers has proposed a $200 billion payroll tax program and a $100 billion infrastructure spending program, which would take place over the next few years.  The Reuters piece also supported the contention that by 2010, Summers had turned away from the Dark Side and aligned himself with Romer in opposing Peter Orszag (who eventually took that controversial spin through the “revolving door” to join Citigroup):

During much of 2010, Obama’s economic advisers wrestled with a debate over whether to shift toward deficit reduction or pursue further fiscal stimulus.

Summers and former White House economist Christina Romer were in the camp arguing that the recession that followed the financial markets meltdown of 2008-2009 was a unique event that required aggressive stimulus to avoid a long period of stagnation similar to Japan’s “lost decade” of the 1990s.

Former White House budget director Peter Orszag was among those who cautioned against a further big stimulus, warning of the need to be mindful of ballooning budget deficits.

By the time voters head to the polls for the next Presidential election, we will be in Year Four of our own “lost decade”.  Accordingly, President Obama’s new “Jobs Czar” – General Electric CEO, Jeffrey Immelt – is busy discussing new plans, which will be destined to go up in smoke when Congressional Republicans exploit the opportunity to maintain the dismal status quo until the day arrives when disgruntled voters can elect President Palin.  Barack Obama is probably suffering from some awful nightmares about that possibility.


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The Wrong Playbook

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President Obama is still getting it wrong.  Nevertheless, we keep hearing that he is such a clever politician.  Count me among those who believe that the Republicans are setting Obama up for failure and a loss to whatever goofball happens to win the GOP Presidential nomination in 2012 – solely because of a deteriorating economy.  Obama had the chance to really save the economy and “right the ship”.  When he had the opportunity to confront the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama violated Rahm Emanuel’s infamous doctrine, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”.  The new President immediately made a point of squandering the opportunity to overcome that crisis.  I voiced my frustration about this on October 7, 2010:

The trouble began immediately after President Obama assumed office.  I wasn’t the only one pulling out my hair in February of 2009, when our new President decided to follow the advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  That decision resulted in a breach of Obama’s now-infamous campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  Obama decided to do more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by 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.  At the Calculated Risk website, Bill McBride lamented Obama’s strident posturing in an interview conducted by Terry Moran of ABC News, when the President actually laughed off the idea of implementing the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership.

In September of 2009, I discussed a fantastic report by Australian economist Steve Keen, who explained how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the financial crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.  The Australian professor (Steve Keen) was right and Team Obama was wrong.  In analyzing Australia’s approach to the financial crisis, economist Joseph Stiglitz made this observation on August 5, 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

On October 6, 2010, Michael Heath of Bloomberg BusinessWeek provided the latest chapter in the story of how America did it wrong while Australia did it right:

Australian Employers Added 49,500 Workers in September

Australian employers in September added the most workers in eight months, driving the country’s currency toward a record and bolstering the case for the central bank to resume raising interest rates.

The number of people employed rose 49,500 from August, the seventh straight gain, the statistics bureau said in Sydney today.  The figure was more than double the median estimate of a 20,000 increase in a Bloomberg News survey of 25 economists.  The jobless rate held at 5.1 percent.

Meanwhile, America’s jobless rate has been hovering around 9 percent and the Federal Reserve found it necessary to print-up another $600 billion for a controversial second round of quantitative easing.  If that $600 billion had been used for the 2009 economic stimulus (and if the stimulus program had been more infrastructure-oriented) we would probably have enjoyed a result closer to that experienced by Australia.  Instead, President Obama chose to follow Japan’s strategy of perpetual bank bailouts (by way of the Fed’s “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP and multiple rounds of quantitative easing), sending America’s economy into our own “lost decade”.

The only member of the Clinton administration who deserves Obama’s ear is being ignored.  Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has been repeatedly emphasizing that President Obama is making a huge mistake by attempting to follow the Clinton playbook:

Many of President Obama’s current aides worked for Clinton and vividly recall Clinton’s own midterm shellacking in 1994 and his re-election two years later – and they think the president should follow Clinton’s script. Obama should distance himself from congressional Democrats, embrace deficit reduction and seek guidance from big business.  They assume that because triangulation worked for Clinton, it will work for Obama.

They’re wrong.  Clinton’s shift to the right didn’t win him re-election in 1996. He was re-elected because of the strength of the economic recovery.

By the spring of 1995, the American economy already had bounced back, averaging 200,000 new jobs per month.  By early 1996, it was roaring – creating 434,000 new jobs in February alone.

Obama’s 2011 reality has us losing nearly 400,000 jobs per month.  Nevertheless, there is this misguided belief that the “wealth effect” caused by inflated stock prices and the current asset bubble will somehow make the Clinton strategy relevant.  It won’t.  Instead, President Obama will adopt a strategy of “austerity lite”, which will send America into a second recession dip and alienate voters just in time for the 2012 elections.  Professor Reich recently warned of this:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently stated the Republican view succinctly:  “Less government spending equals more private sector jobs.”

In the past I’ve often wondered whether they’re knaves or fools.  Now I’m sure.  Republicans wouldn’t mind a double-dip recession between now and Election Day 2012.

They figure it’s the one sure way to unseat Obama.  They know that when the economy is heading downward, voters always fire the boss.  Call them knaves.

What about the Democrats?  Most know how fragile the economy is but they’re afraid to say it because the White House wants to paint a more positive picture.

And most of them are afraid of calling for what must be done because it runs so counter to the dominant deficit-cutting theme in our nation’s capital that they fear being marginalized.  So they’re reduced to mumbling “don’t cut so much.”  Call them fools.

If inviting a double-dip recession weren’t dumb enough – how about a second financial crisis?  Just add more systemic risk and presto! The banks won’t have any problems because the Fed and the Treasury will provide another round of bailouts.  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns recently wrote an essay focused on Treasury Secretary Geithner’s belief that we need big banks to be even bigger.

Even if the Republicans nominate a Presidential candidate who espouses a strategy of simply relying on Jesus to extinguish fires at offshore oil rigs and nuclear reactors – Obama will still lose.  May God help us!


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Summers Solstice

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November 27, 2008

We are now approaching the winter solstice (December 21 – the time at which the sun is at its most southern distance from the equator during the year – a/k/a:  “the shortest day of the year” for those of us in the northern hemisphere).  President-elect Obama’s appointment of Larry Summers as Director of the National Economic Council reminds me of another definition of the word “solstice”:  a turning point.  For all his faults (most notably, his infamous remarks as President of Harvard University, about the involvement of women in the study of science) he is no longer considered so much of a “supply sider” as a centrist in the world of economics.  Summers has apparently passed a turning point in his economic philosophy.

For those unfamiliar with Larry Summers, David Leonhardt’s article, “The Return of Larry Summers” in the November 25 New York Times is worth reading. I’ve been hearing reverberations of Leonhardt’s commentary throughout the mainstream media lately.  Here is an important observation from Mr. Leonhardt’s piece:

He (Summers) is also the centrist who has made it safe for other centrist Democrats to move to the left.  Both times I’ve interviewed Mr. Obama this year, he has brought up Mr. Summers, unbidden, and pointed out that Mr. Summers was now writing a lot more about the plight of the middle class than about budget deficits.  At Monday’s news conference, Mr. Obama called him “a thought leader.”

The “thought leader” remark came up in the following context when Barack Obama announced his appointment of Summers to the National Economic Council post on November 24.

As a thought leader, Larry has urged us to confront the problems of income inequality and the middle class squeeze, consistently arguing that the key to a strong economy is a strong, vibrant, growing middle class.

This idea is at the core of my own economic philosophy and will be the foundation of all of my economic policies. And as one of the great economic minds of our time, Larry has earned a global reputation for being able to cut to the heart of the most complex and novel policy challenges.

Looking back to June 10, 2007, we find another article in the New York Times written by David Leonhardt, entitled:  “Larry Summers’s Evolution”.  As we revisit this commentary in light of our current economic crisis, the pronouncements made by Summers seem almost prophetic:

The model that most appeals to Summers is, in fact, the United States — in the decades after World War II.  At the time, this country was opening itself to more global competition, by rebuilding Europe and signing financial agreements like Bretton Woods.  But it was also taking concrete steps to build the modern middle class.  In addition to the G.I. Bill, there were the Federal Housing Administration, the Interstate Highway System and a very different tax code.  The history of progressivism “has been one of the market being protected from its own excesses,” Summers says.  “And I think now the challenge is, again, to protect a basic market system based on open trade and globalization, to make it one that works for everyone or for almost everyone, at a time when market forces are often producing outcomes that seem increasingly problematic to middle-class families.”

That essay inspired The Economist to post a piece on its Free Exchange blog on the following day, entitled “Has Larry Summers Gone Soft?”

Nevertheless, conservative writers such as Kevin Hassett of Forbes still think of Summers as an opponent to increased capital gains taxation and hence, an advocate of “supply side” economics.   Conservative writer, David Harsanyi of the Denver Post exhibited similar enthusiasm about the appointment of Summers.  However, in the November 24 National Review, Larry Kudlow saw Obama’s appointment of Summers as a move to the center:

As for Summers, while he has been mau-maued by Democratic feminists and some of the unions, he is a tough, clear-headed thinker who has for years tried to merge Keynesian and supply-side policies.  No mean feat.

At this point, many pundits are attempting to “read the tea leaves” for hints as to whether President Obama will act to reverse the Bush tax cuts or let them expire in 2011.  The consensus suggests that he may simply let them expire.  This has drawn some anxious criticism from the left.  On the November 25 broadcast of the program, Democracy Now, author Naomi Klein made the following remark about Obama’s appointment of Summers:  “I think this is really troubling.”  However, on that same program, economics professor Robert Kuttner (the chief economics adviser to Rep. Dennis Kucinich) explained that he was “less pessimistic” than Ms. Klein about the Summers appointment:

I think even Larry Summers, because he is such an opportunist, has lately been calling for very large stimulus package, has been calling for tighter regulation of banks.

The influence of Larry Summers on the Obama Administration’s economic policy will be a continuing saga for the next few years.  At this point, the “change you can believe in” seems to absorb more than a little input from the center.