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Christina Romer Was Right

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Now it’s official.  Christina Romer was right.  The signs that she was about to be proven correct had been turning up everywhere.  When Charles Kaldec of Forbes reminded us – yet again – of President Obama’s willful refusal to seriously consider the advice of the former Chair of his Council of Economic Advisers, it became apparent that something was about to happen  .  .  .

On Friday morning, the highly-anticipated non-farm payrolls report for April was released by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  Although economists had been anticipating an increase of 165,000 jobs during the past month, the report disclosed that only 115,000 jobs were added.  In other words, the headline number was 50,000 less than the anticipated figure, missing economists’ expectations by a whopping 31 percent.  The weak 115,000 total failed to match the 120,000 jobs added in March.  Worse yet, even if payrolls were expanding at twice that rate, it would take more than five years to significantly reduce the jobs backlog and create new jobs to replace the 5.3 million lost during the recession.

Because this is an election year, Republicans are highlighting the ongoing unemployment crisis as a failure of the Obama Presidency.  On Friday evening’s CNN program, Anderson Cooper 360, economist Paul Krugman insisted that this crisis has resulted from Republican intransigence.  Bohemian Grove delegate David Gergen rebutted Krugman’s claim by emphasizing that Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus program was inadequate to address the task of bringing unemployment back to pre-crisis levels.  What annoyed me about Gergen’s response was his dishonest implication that President Obama’s semi-stimulus was Christina Romer’s brainchild.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The stimulus program proposed by Romer would have involved a more significant, $1.8 trillion investment.  Beyond that, the fact that unemployment continues for so many millions of people who lost their jobs during the recession is precisely because of Barack Obama’s decision to ignore Christina Romer.  I have been groaning about that decision for a long time, as I discussed here and here.

My February 13 discussion of Noam Scheiber’s book, The Escape Artists, demonstrated how abso-fucking-lutely wrong David Gergen was when he tried to align Christina Romer with Obama’s stimulus:

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 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”.

Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men is another source which contradicts David Gergen’s attempt to characterize Obama’s stimulus as Romer’s baby.  Last fall, Berkeley economics professor, Brad DeLong had been posting and discussing excerpts from the book at his own website, Grasping Reality With Both Hands.  On September 19, Professor DeLong posted a passage from Suskind’s book, which revealed Obama’s expressed belief (in November of 2009) that high unemployment was a result of productivity gains in the economy.  Both Larry Summers (Chair of the National Economic Council) and Christina Romer (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers) were shocked and puzzled by Obama’s ignorance on this subject:

“What was driving unemployment was clearly deficient aggregate demand,” Romer said.  “We wondered where this could be coming from.  We both tried to convince him otherwise.  He wouldn’t budge.”

Obama’s willful refusal to heed the advice of Cristina Romer has facilitated the persistence of our nation’s unemployment problem.  As Ron Suskind remarked in the previously-quoted passage:

The implications were significant.  If Obama felt that 10 percent unemployment was the product of sound, productivity-driven decisions by American business, then short-term government measures to spur hiring were not only futile but unwise.

There you have it.  Despite the efforts of Obama’s apologists to blame Larry Summers or others on the President’s economic team for persistent unemployment, it wasn’t simply a matter of “the buck stopping” on the President’s desk.  Obama himself  has been the villain, hypocritically advocating a strategy of “trickle-down economics” – in breach of  his campaign promise to do the exact opposite.

As Election Day approaches, it becomes increasingly obvious that the unemployment situation will persist through autumn – and it could get worse.  This is not Christina Romer’s fault.  It is President Obama’s legacy.  Christina Romer was right and President Obama was wrong.


 

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.



 

Another Great Idea From Ron Paul

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Congressman Ron Paul is one of the few original thinkers on Capitol Hill.  Sometimes he has great ideas, although at other times he might sound a little daft.  He recently grabbed some headlines by expressing the view that the United States “should declare bankruptcy”.  A June 28 CNN report focused on Paul’s agreement with the contention that if bankruptcy is the cure for Greece, it is also the cure for the United States.  However, as most economists will point out, the situation in Greece is not at all relevant to our situation because the United States issues its own currency and Greece is stuck with the euro, under the regime of the European Central Bank.  Anyone who can’t grasp that concept should read this posting by Cullen Roche at the Seeking Alpha website.

Nevertheless, economist Dean Baker picked up on one of Congressman Paul’s points, which – if followed through to its logical conclusion – could actually solve the debt ceiling impasse.  The remark by Ron Paul which inspired Dean Baker was a gripe about the $1.6 trillion in Treasury securities that the Federal Reserve now holds as a result of two quantitative easing programs:

“We owe, like, $1.6 trillion because the Federal Reserve bought that debt, so we have to work hard to pay the interest to the Federal Reserve,” Paul said. “We don’t, I mean, they’re nobody; why do we have to pay them off?”

In an article for The New Republic, Dr. Baker commended Dr. Paul for his creativity and agreed that having the Federal Reserve Board destroy the $1.6 trillion in government bonds it now holds as a result of quantitative easing “is actually a very reasonable way to deal with the crisis”.  Baker provided this explanation:

Last year the Fed refunded almost $80 billion to the Treasury.  In this sense, the bonds held by the Fed are literally money that the government owes to itself.

Unlike the debt held by Social Security, the debt held by the Fed is not tied to any specific obligations.  The bonds held by the Fed are assets of the Fed.  It has no obligations that it must use these assets to meet.  There is no one who loses their retirement income if the Fed doesn’t have its bonds.  In fact, there is no direct loss of income to anyone associated with the Fed’s destruction of its bonds.  This means that if Congress told the Fed to burn the bonds, it would in effect just be destroying a liability that the government had to itself, but it would still reduce the debt subject to the debt ceiling by $1.6 trillion. This would buy the country considerable breathing room before the debt ceiling had to be raised again.  President Obama and the Republican congressional leadership could have close to two years to talk about potential spending cuts or tax increases.  Maybe they could even talk a little about jobs.

Unfortunately, the next passage of Dr. Baker’s essay exposed the reason why this simple, logical solution would never become implemented:

As it stands now, the Fed plans to sell off its bond holdings over the next few years.  This means that the interest paid on these bonds would go to banks, corporations, pension funds, and individual investors who purchase them from the Fed.

And therein lies the rub:  The infamous “too-big-to-fail” banks could buy those bonds with money borrowed from the Fed at a fractional interest rate, and then collect the yield on those bonds – entirely at the expense of American taxpayers!  Not only would the American people lose money by loaning the bond purchase money to the banks almost free of charge – we would lose even more money by paying those banks interest on the money we just loaned to those same banks – nearly free of charge.  (This is nothing new.  It’s been ongoing since the inception of “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP on December 16, 2008.)  President Obama would never allow his patrons on Wall Street to have such an opportunity “stolen” from them by the American taxpayers.  Banking industry lobbyists would start swarming all over Capitol Hill carrying briefcases filled with money if any serious effort to undertake such a plan reached the discussion stage.  At this point, you might suspect that the grifters on the Hill could have a scheme underway:  Make a few noises about following Baker’s suggestion and wait for the lobbyists to start sharing the love.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be left to suffer the consequences of our government’s failure to raise the debt ceiling.


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Formula For Failure

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The Democratic Party is suffering from a case of terminal smugness. Democrats ignored the warning back in 2006, when the South Park television series ran the episode, “Smug Alert”.

I recently came across a dangerous manifestation of  “The Smug” in a recent article written by Ed Kilgore for The New Republic, in which Mr. Kilgore complacently explained “why Obama won’t face a primary challenge”.  We are supposed to forget about the “shellacking” taken by Democrats in the mid-term elections.  We are to ignore the fact that “mischief-making pundits have seized on a couple of polls to burnish their narrative”.  In an act exemplifying what my late father described as “tempting fate”, Mr. Kilgore proceeded to belittle the most serious criticisms of the President, while daring lightening to strike:

Above all, primary challenges to incumbent presidents require a galvanizing issue.  It’s very doubtful that the grab-bag of complaints floated by the Democratic electorate — Obama’s legislative strategy during the health care fight; his relative friendliness to Wall Street; gay rights; human rights; his refusal to prosecute Bush administration figures for war crimes or privacy violations — would be enough to spur a serious challenge.  And while Afghanistan is an increasing source of Democratic discontent, it’s hardly Vietnam, and Obama has promised to reduce troop levels sharply by 2012.

The timing of Kilgore’s supercilious disregard of a challenge to Obama’s presence atop the 2012 ticket could not have been worse.  Thanks to the efforts of the late Mark Pittman, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Bloomberg News has forced the Federal Reserve to disclose the details of its bailouts to those business entities benefiting from the Fed’s eleven emergency lending programs initiated as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. The Fed’s massive document dump on December 1 (occurring right on the heels of the WikiLeaks publication of indiscretions by Obama’s Secretary of State — Hillary Clinton) has refocused criticism of what Kilgore described as the President’s “relative friendliness to Wall Street”.  Although Mr. Obama had not yet assumed office in the fall of 2008, after moving into the White House, the new President re-empowered the same cast of characters responsible for the financial crisis and the worst of the bailouts.  The architect of Maiden Lane III (which included a $13 billion gift to Goldman Sachs) “Turbo” Tim Geithner, was elevated from president of the New York Fed to Treasury Secretary.  Ben Bernanke was re-nominated by Obama (over strenuous bipartisan objection) to serve another term as Federal Reserve Chairman.

In the 2008 Democratic Primary elections, voters chose “change” rather than another Clinton administration.  Nevertheless, what the voters got was another Clinton administration.  After establishing an economic advisory team consisting of retreads from the Clinton White House, President Obama has persisted in approaching the 2010 economy as though it were the 1996 economy.  Obama’s creation of a bipartisan deficit commission has been widely criticized as an inept fallback to the obsolete Bill Clinton playbook.  Robert Reich, Labor Secretary for the original Clinton administration recently upbraided President Obama for this wrongheaded approach:

Bill Clinton had a rapidly expanding economy to fall back on, so his appeasement of Republicans didn’t legitimize the Republican world view.  Obama doesn’t have that luxury.  The American public is still hurting and they want to know why.

The Pragmatic Capitalist criticized President Obama’s habitual reliance on members of the Clinton administration as futile attempts to bring about the same results obtained fifteen years ago.  Obama’s appointment of Erskine Bowles (Clinton’s former Chief of Staff) as co-chair of the deficit commission was denounced as a recent example.  Bowles’ platitudinous insistence that it’s time for an “adult conversation about the dangers of this debt” drew this blistering retort:

Yes.  America has a debt problem. We have a very serious household, municipality and state debt crisis that is in many ways similar to what is going on in Europe.   What we absolutely don’t have is a federal government debt problem.  After all, a nation with monopoly supply of currency in a floating exchange rate system never really has “debt” unless that debt is denominated in a foreign currency.  He says this conversation is the:

“exact same conversation every family, every single business, every single state and every single municipality has been having these last few years.”

There is only one problem with this remark.  The federal government is NOTHING like a household, state or municipality.   These entities are all revenue constrained.  The Federal government has no such constraint. We don’t need China to lend us money.  We don’t need to raise taxes to spend money.  When the US government wants to spend money it sends men and women into a room where they mark up accounts in a computer system.   They don’t call China first or check their tax revenues.   They just spend the money.

*   *   *
Mr. Bowles finished his press conference by saying that the American people get it:

“There is one thing I am absolutely sure of.  If nothing else, I know deep down the American people get it.   They know this is the moment of truth”

The American people most certainly don’t get it.  And how can you blame them?  When a supposed financial expert like Mr. Bowles can’t grasp these concepts how could we ever expect the average American to understand it?  It’s time for an adult conversation to begin before this misguided conversation regarding the future bankruptcy of America sends us towards our own “moment of truth” – a 1937 moment.

I hope it doesn’t take “a 1937 moment” for the Democrats to appreciate the very serious risk that the Palin family could be living in the White House in 2013.


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That Sinking Feeling

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December 10, 2009

President Obama must have thought that a regimen of constant speechifying on television would maintain his popularity.  While enduring criticism from his fellow Democrats after his most recent speech on December 8, Obama must be aware that the poll numbers show how his continuous oration strategy is not working.  During these desperate economic times, the voters — even Obama’s own supporters — want more than speeches.  On December 1, poll results released by Rasmussen Reports not only revealed that the President’s approval rating sank to 48 percent — his disapproval rating actually reached 52 percent!  On December 9, Quinnipiac University published the results of a poll conducted during December 1 – 6.  The results gave the Preisdent a job approval rating of only 46 percent, and those disapproving Obama’s performance amounted to 44 percent.  Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, discussed the results:

“President Barack Obama’s job approval rating continues to slide and it’s evident the deterioration stems from voter unhappiness over domestic policy matters,” Brown added.

American voters disapprove 54 – 41 percent of Obama’s handling of the economy, down from a 52 – 43 percent disapproval November 18 and his worst score ever on this issue.  The biggest shift is among Democrats who approve 71 – 24 percent, down from 77 – 18 percent three weeks ago.

The biggest drop in Obama’s overall approval is among independent voters, who disapprove 51 – 37 percent, down from 46 – 43 percent disapproval.

Although the health care issue had an impact on the poll’s results, the Quinnipiac team found that the deterioration in support for Obama resulted from those favoring the public option, despite the spin effort in many quarters to suggest that the poll revealed dissatisfaction with the public option itself:

Voters disapprove 52 – 38 percent of the health care reform proposal under consideration in Congress, and they disapprove 56 – 38 percent of President Obama’s handling of health care, down from 53 – 41 percent in a November 19 survey by the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh- pe-ack) University.

But voters support 56 – 38 percent giving people the option of being covered by a government health insurance plan, compared to 57 -35 percent November 19.

The Ipsos/McClatchy Poll, taken during December 3 – 6, gave the President an even 49 – 49 percent split on his approval rating.  The interesting segment of these results was the breakdown on voter satisfaction concerning particular issues.  That section of the poll revealed that Obama received his highest “unsatisfactory” rating on the issue of  “jobs and the economy” with 45 percent giving the President an unsatisfactory grade (D or F) while only 36 percent gave him a satisfactory grade (A or B) and 19 percent gave him a C.

The disappointment expressed by Obama’s supporters concerning his handling of the economy was not limited to polling results.  Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration, wrote a piece for his blog on December 8 entitled:  “The Preisdent’s Job Initiative Doesn’t Measure Up”.  Reich was not alone in his assessment of Obama’s performance to date:

No president in modern times walks a tightrope as exquisitely as this one.  His balance is a thing of beauty.  But when it comes to this economy right now — an economy fundamentally out of balance — we need a federal government that moves boldly and swiftly to counter-balance the huge recessionary forces still at large.

Reich implied that the time for the “balancing act” is over.  It is now time to solve problems:

The word in Washington is we’re out of the woods.  The rate of unemployment dipped from 10.2 percent in September to 10 percent in October.  In our nation’s capital, a one-month trend marks a turnaround.  Don’t believe it for a moment.  The real story of October was the increasing number of Americans who dropped out of the labor force, too discouraged even to look for work.

Whether or not one agrees with Reich’s proposal of spending $400 billion over a two-year period to put people back to work, even Reich’s opponents would likely agree with his assessment of Obama’s initiative:

We don’t know exactly how much the President is proposing to spend, but sources tell me it’s in the range of $70 billion, redirected from the $200 billion in TARP savings.  The President’s small, calibrated attempt to balance a stimulus with deficit reduction will in fact make the deficit worse over the long haul.  It postpones the day when we’re back to near full employment, when almost all Americans who need a job get paychecks on which they pay taxes.  This isn’t really balance at all.   It prolongs the economic imbalance.

At The New Republic, William Galston wrote a piece entitled “Obama Has a Problem Prioritizing his Agenda” which he began by discussing the importance of timing:

Timing is to politics what location is to real estate.  Good policy ideas are useless if the time is not right.

*   *   *

But the larger point is that the president is beginning to realign his agenda.

But he’s just beginning.  To complete the pivot and make 2010 the year of jobs, two other things must happen.  First, the White House must fully integrate the jobs focus into the president’s schedule.

*   *   *

Second, the legislative agenda for 2010 must reflect and reinforce the renewed focus on job creation.  That means postponing items that the American people are bound to regard as diversionary as long as unemployment remains high.

*   *   *

Great presidents from Lincoln to FDR have understood that “now or never” is the ultimate false choice in politics.  All too often, now means never.  The “fierce urgency of now” should be reserved for what is truly urgent.  As for the rest, patience is more than a virtue; it is a necessity.

On of my favorite centrist commentators, Dan Gerstein of Forbes.com, wrote a piece on Wednesday entitled:  “Obama Not Cutting It On The Economy”.  Although Gerstein began by complimenting Obama on his “balancing act”, he moved on to focus on the absence of “hope and change” promised during the election campaign.  As we have seen, Gerstein was not alone in emphasizing the need to immediately address this problem:

Indeed, we’re confronting an unprecedented combination of grave economic challenges that, while not as immediate as the financial collapse we avoided last fall, may be more consequential.

Gerstein explained how Obama’s initiative is a step in the right direction, but just a step, nonetheless:

The modest job-creation proposals the administration unveiled Tuesday individually have their merits, and they seem much more mission-focused than the mish-mashed stimulus bill that Congressional Democrats constructed.

*   *   *

That’s because the new jobs plan was not designed to be a policy game-changer but a political stopgap, to tide the public over and buy the White House time for the second half of the stimulus plan to kick in.  They are betting the national farm — soy beans to servers — that the old stimulus combined with the new “stimulus lite” will provide enough demand to spur enough new hiring to calm the country.

Gerstein provided a good explanation of the core difficulty the President faces in tackling the multitude of problems arising from the economic crisis:

This unwillingness to make tough decisions strikes me as arguably the worst leadership failure of the Obama presidency.  That’s in large part because cutting outlays and shifting resources would be such a relatively easy lift in this environment.  For starters the federal government is filled with programs and set-asides that are either outdated, wasteful, largely symbolic or designed to serve narrow interest groups.  And the administration (not to mention many think tanks) has already identified dozens of suitable targets in budget hit lists.  No one would be better positioned than Obama, given his baseline support on the left, to call for the elimination and reduction of programs that we can’t defend as national priorities at this moment.

*   *   *

This was the great missed opportunity of the president’s speech — the watchdog that didn’t bark.  He could have done more than repackage his economic policy; he could have helped restore public confidence in his leadership and our shared future.  Instead, the juggler-in-chief did the opposite of his Afghanistan speech — he settled for the safe play and in doing so dropped the most important ball.

That’s great advice!  If only the President would listen to it.



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The Big Bite

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March 12, 2009

As President Obama’s “big bang” agenda gets underway (wherein the government is simultaneously tackling the problems of the economy, health care, education and energy) criticism of this strategy is beginning to mount.  Commentators from the conservative end of the spectrum are, not surprisingly, the most vocal in their admonitions that these other issues are detracting attention from the most pressing issue facing America and the world:  the economy.  As William Galston pointed out in The New Republic, Obama’s “big bang” strategy runs the risk of repeating Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to push a far-reaching agenda at the beginning of his term:

It is time for President Obama to focus his considerable leadership and communication skills on the financial crisis–to speak candidly with the people about the magnitude of pthe roblem, to embrace a solution commensurate with the problem, and to do whatever it takes to persuade Congress and the people to accept it.  If he does not, he could end up where another highly intelligent, self-disciplined, and upright president did three decades ago.

Conservative pundit, Tony Blankley, expressed similar dismay that not enough thought and effort have been dedicated to this urgent problem.  He added that this sentiment is not limited to those on the “far right”:

Obama not only is failing to focus more or less exclusively on protecting the financial system and the economy that depend on it but also is letting his ideological ardor drive him to expend both his own and his administration’s attention, along with the vast new tax dollars, on those programs rather than on the financial and economic crises.

Thus — and here is his political danger — if the financial system fails (and much of the economy along with it), it will be a fair, true and politically lethal charge against Obama that he didn’t do all he could as soon as he could to protect us from the catastrophe.  It was this decision that shocked even some of his moderate supporters, such as David Gergen, David Brooks and others, who are muttering in private.

And this misjudgment is only compounded by the slow and inept start of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the man who has the line responsibility to fix it and who only this past weekend got around to nominating some of his vital sub-Cabinet officials.  The failure of both Obama and Geithner, in the five months since the election, to come up with a plan to deal with the toxic assets and insolvency of major financial institutions may well look even more irresponsible than it already does if the derivatives crisis in fact hits the world.

Most of the anxiety over the Obama administration’s economic plan (or lack thereof) concerns its lack of disclosed details and the administration’s apparent decision to ignore the warnings of prominent economists about the urgency of taking the only logical action:  put the “zombie” banks through receivership to purge them of their “toxic assets” (most notably mortgage-backed securities).  The scant information disclosed about Treasury Secretary, “Turbo” Tim Geithner’s Financial Stability Plan is that it involves “stress testing” the banks to determine their true financial condition and creating some sort of investment fund by which private investors would be enticed to purchase the toxic assets with taxpayer money being used to guarantee the value of those assets.

Turbo Tim has repeatedly stated that he is opposed to “nationalization” of the functionally insolvent banks.  This position is in direct opposition to the warnings of two Nobel laureates and countless other Economics professors, including Dr. Nouriel Roubini, who predicted the economic crisis back on September 7, 2006.  As Steve Coll discussed on The New Yorker‘s Think Tank blog:

To compound all this, Geithner, Bernanke, and the President seem to have organized themselves as a determined minority in resistance to the gathering view among mainstream economists, even Alan Greenspan, that the best solution to the bank problem, at this point, is, in fact, temporary receivership — on the model of the Resolution Trust Corporation that cleaned up the savings-and-loans industry in the early nineteen-nineties, or the more routine receivership processes of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  Is this resistance by Geithner, Bernanke, and the President genuine and fully determined, or is it part of the political and confidence equation above, and therefore susceptible to change?  In the President’s case, it’s hard to be sure.  In Geithner’s case, he seems to be saying what he means. Where is Larry Summers, the top White House economic adviser, on this critical question?  Also hard to tell.  Perhaps, like Alan Greenspan, he is privately leaning toward receivership; if so, his position would be complicated by the fact that his younger, former protege, Geithner, who now holds a more visible position than his own, thinks otherwise.  Anyway, the facts about the health of the banks are not yet officially in hand — that is the purpose of the “stress tests” that are now being administered, to analyze which of the country’s largest nineteen banks are in the strongest positions, and which are in the weakest.  Policy options are still being developed. The likelihood of various economic forecasts is still being debated.  And so we endure more Kremlin-like opacity.

Is Turbo Tim simply “playing it close to the chest” by holding off on announcing any plans to put zombie banks into receivership, so as to prevent a “run” on more healthy institutions and the destruction of what is left of their stock value?  Although I would like to believe that, those more knowledgeable than myself are quite skeptical.  Columbia University Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz (2001 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics) pointed out in the March 29 issue of The Nation, that placing the insolvent banks into receivership must be done immediately.  The process of endless bailouts for these banks is a waste of money that appears to be solely for the benefit of the banks’ shareholders:

It has been obvious for some time that a government takeover of our banking system–perhaps along the lines of what Norway and Sweden did in the ’90s–is the only solution.  It should be done, and done quickly, before even more bailout money is wasted.
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The politicians responsible for the bailout keep saying, “We had no choice. We had a gun pointed at our heads.  Without the bailout, things would have been even worse.”  This may or may not be true, but in any case the argument misses a critical distinction between saving the banks and saving the bankers and shareholders.  We could have saved the banks but let the bankers and shareholders go.  The more we leave in the pockets of the shareholders and the bankers, the more that has to come out of the taxpayers’ pockets.
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By these standards, the TARP bailout has so far been a dismal failure. Unbelievably expensive, it has failed to rekindle lending.  Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson gave the banks a big handout; what taxpayers got in return was worth less than two-thirds of what we gave the big banks–and the value of what we got has dropped precipitously since.

Since TARP facilitated the consolidation of banks, the problem of “too big to fail” has become worse, and therefore the excessive risk-taking that it engenders has grown worse.  The banks carried on paying out dividends and bonuses and didn’t even pretend to resume lending.

The most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Paul Krugman, has become increasingly vocal in his criticism of the Obama administration’s approach to this problem:

A real fix for the troubles of the banking system might help make up for the inadequate size of the stimulus plan, so it was good to hear that Mr. Obama spends at least an hour each day with his economic advisors, “talking through how we are approaching the financial markets.”  But he went on to dismiss calls for decisive action as coming from “blogs” (actually, they’re coming from many other places, including at least one president of a Federal Reserve bank), and suggested that critics want to “nationalize all the banks” (something nobody is proposing).

As I read it, this dismissal — together with the continuing failure to announce any broad plans for bank restructuring — means that the White House has decided to muddle through on the financial front, relying on economic recovery to rescue the banks rather than the other way around.  And with the stimulus plan too small to deliver an economic recovery … well, you get the picture.

Is the administration’s approach to the financial crisis being handicapped by an over-extension of resources because of the overwhelming demands of the “big bang” strategy?  Whether or not that is the case, the administration’s current solution to the bank problem is drawing criticism from both the left and the right.  If President Obama stays with the course charted by “Turbo” Tim Geithner, odds are that our new President will be restricted to a single term in The White House.

Michelle In The Spotlight

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November 20, 2008

I receive many strange comments on this website that I simply delete.  Although I am a strong proponent of First Amendment rights, I exercise my option of deleting defamatory remarks, spam-based “comments” and miscellaneous lunacy.  That final category includes a comment I received a while ago from an alleged female, focused on Michelle Obama.  The rant included this statement:  “Someone should look into Michelle  …”   I felt inclined to reply with the following:

An obstetrician actually did look into her and found two African-American babies, who were sired by Barack Obama.  Are you scared yet?

Throughout the Presidential campaign, the crazy stuff about Michelle kept turning up all over the media.  Monday, November 17, was a landmark day for that ignominious chapter in “news” coverage.  You may remember Fox News anchor E.D. Hill, who, on June 6, called attention to Michelle’s “terrorist fist jab” with Barack.  Fox News subsequently removed Hill from its America’s Pulse program.  On November 17, TVNewser reported that the Fox News Senior Vice-President of programming, Bill Shine, informed TVNewser of his decision not to renew Hill’s current contract with Fox, which expires within the next few months.  A small step for Fox, but a giant leap for  …  uh …  Fox.

From a more rational perspective, another item about Michelle appeared on today’s Daily Beast website.  The article, “Michelle’s Closet Agenda”, was written by Geraldine Brooks.  Ms. Brooks summarized the theme of her posting with this statement:

The point of this long-winded anecdote is not to add more fuel to the bonfire of the vanities surrounding the fact that, my God, we’re finally gonna’ have another first lady like Jackie who knows how to dress.  The point is twofold:  Michelle seems to be able to do everything she sets her mind to, and to do it at a high level of excellence.  And, more importantly: she knows this, and isn’t about to be “handled” into any role in which she is not supremely confident and comfortable.

This point emphasizes an aspect about Michelle that many people find threatening.  They saw it all before with Hillary Clinton:  A woman who attended law school with her husband at Yale, who went on to have an active and successful legal career.  Although Barack is two years older than Michelle, she graduated from Harvard Law School three years before our President-elect graduated from that same institution.  While working as Vice-President for Community and External Affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals, Michelle was earning approximately $273,000 per year, in comparison with Barack’s $157,000 salary as a United States Senator representing the State of Illinois.

Michelle’s stint as First Lady follows that of Laura Bush, who did not have much to say during her husband’s eight-year tenure.  Nevertheless, book publishers are stomping on each other’s toes in the quest to obtain the publishing rights to Laura’s memoirs.  As for Michelle, many are expecting a First Lady who might have a little more to say, than did Laura Bush.  There is a great deal of doubt as to whether Michelle will become as involved in government as was Hillary Clinton, during her days promoting expanded health care.  Despite that, many people are anxious to get a little more insight from Michelle than we heard from Laura Bush.  One of the first commentators to express this craving was Jason Zengerle.  After Michelle’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Zengerle had this to say in the August 25 edition of The New Republic:

Michelle Obama introduced herself as a sister, a wife, a mother, and a daughter–which are all incredibly important identities.  But those identities don’t reveal her full person–the Princeton and Harvard Law grad, the corporate attorney, the hospital executive–which were parts of her life that she barely mentioned.  Instead, she gave us predictable pap like “the Barack Obama I know today is the same man I fell in love with 19 years ago.”

Many pundits are hungry for more incisive, quotable wisdom from our next First Lady.  They will surely get it.  They will know better than to scrutinize Michelle’s statements for gaffes.  Joe Biden has proven himself as the new administration’s most abundant source of those.  Why look elsewhere?