Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Problem is Political

Ezra Klein, to whom tcnorris has provided a link for a long time, has written an excellent summary of why a bad economy has plagued Barack Obama in the form of a disparaging book review about Ron Suskind's Confidence Men.

Suskind did not get the story right at all, but this summary by Klein does:
It is easy to tell the story of what the White House did wrong in its response to the financial crisis: it underestimated it. It had good reason to underestimate it, of course. Almost everyone was underestimating it. In the fourth quarter of 2008, when Obama’s economic team was meeting in Chicago to map out their policies, the Bureau of Economic Accounts thought the economy was contracting at a rate of 3.8 percent per year. It wouldn’t be until this year that we learned the economy was really contracting at a rate of 9 percent. And it wasn’t just the BEA. The Federal Reserve has been continuously overoptimistic. So have the leading private forecasting firms, like Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody’s Analytics. And so have Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan.
The observers who got it right were the ones who could tell a story that didn’t rely on the early data. Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, who would publish This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, their epic history of financial crises, in late 2009, saw that the recovery would be slow and tough. Economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, who were more knowledgeable about the struggles over recession in Japan and had their own Keynesian understanding of financial panics, were also suitably pessimistic.
But early mistakes can be corrected. If the initial stimulus is too small, you make it bigger. If your housing policies are too modest, you toughen them up. If the private sector sheds jobs and long-term unemployment becomes a problem, you begin hiring workers directly.
Or so goes the theory. The reality is more troubling. The initial stimulus was too small, but there’s no plausible case that Congress would have been willing to make it much bigger just because the Obama administration had a theory that the financial crisis would lead to a worse recession than most forecasters expected. The trouble was that attacking a financial crisis with a too-small stimulus was a bit like attacking pneumonia with too-few antibiotics: you feel better for awhile, and then it comes back. And this time, it’s harder to kill.
The problem is political. Having very publicly passed a very big policy that you promised would revive the economy, the country blames you when the economy does not, in fact, revive. Your policies are discredited and your opponents are emboldened. You lose seats in the next election and your leverage over lawmakers. So you can’t, with any prospect of success, go back to the well and ask for a bigger stimulus or more money to buy up bad mortgages. And then, when the economy gets worse, you’re simultaneously in charge and out of options. You came to Washington promising change and now you’re begging for patience. It’s a crummy situation, and there’s no combination of policy proposals or speeches that can get you out of it. But this is the vise that has tightened around Barack Obama’s presidency.
It seems to me that even those who got it right such as Krugman probably underestimated how much stimulus was actually needed (although he foresaw the political consequences). The Obama stimulus was $700 billion and Krugman and others spoke of 1.3 billion over two years.  As Klein notes revisions to the data made only this year tell us the downturn was much worse than suspected at the time.

We still need lots of stimulus, but the blame for not doing anything now squarely and unequivocally belongs with the Republicans and the austerity class, something that the media in particular, has had trouble figuring out.

More needs to be done by government in the form of public spending in the U.S., Europe and Canada. The mania for deficit cutting and balanced budgets is insane. It cannot be said often enough or loudly enough: we must not worry about deficits while the problem is deflation and unemployment.