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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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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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