What Real Economic Stimulus Looks Like

Via Brad DeLong and Jamie Galbraith, here’s what real economic stimulus looked like:

If the banking system is crippled, then to be effective the public sector must do much, much more. How much more? By how much can spending be raised in a real depression? And does this remedy work? [E]conomist Marshall Auerback….

“[Roosevelt’s] government hired about 60 per cent of the unemployed in public works and conservation projects that planted a billion trees, saved the whooping crane, modernized rural America, and built such diverse projects as the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh, the Montana state capitol, much of the Chicago lakefront, New York’s Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough Bridge complex, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. It also built or renovated 2,500 hospitals, 45,000 schools, 13,000 parks and playgrounds, 7,800 bridges, 700,000 miles of roads, and a thousand airfields. And it employed 50,000 teachers, rebuilt the country’s entire rural school system, and hired 3,000 writers, musicians, sculptors and painters, including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.”

In other words, Roosevelt employed Americans on a vast scale, bringing the unemployment rates down to levels that were tolerable, even before the war—from 25 percent in 1933 to below 10 percent in 1936, if you count those employed by the government as employed, which they surely were.

If you’re in a hurry, check out DeLong… He will give you the shorthand. If not, and want a more in-depth view, be sure to read Galbraith’s column. He was one of a few progressive economists that called the game early (March 2009), and in hindsight was pretty much spot on in his analysis. Galbraith’s piece is both a good primer on the history of how Obama’s economic team reacted to the crisis, and a prescient analysis of Geitner’s banking plan, identifying weaknesses in the plan then now playing out. The article is invaluable for understanding why we are struggling still with high unemployment and little movement to implement policy to put people to work. The Obstructionistas in Congress and in the States have by choice given us a socially devastating slow recovery, instead implementing policy that cuts both revenue and spending, prolonging the crisis for millions rather than mitigating its effects on Main St and the middle class. Intent on shrinking government to the size it can be drowned in a bathtub, as Grover Norquist famously quipped, the Norquist tax pledge has held hostage the politicians who signed his pledge to cut taxes to draconian measures shouldered by the unemployed, the elderly, children, the poor and the sick.

Focusing on the short-term, the Obstructionistas have turned common sense and precedent on their heads, giving the American middle class stones when what they have asked for is bread. When government can borrow at negative real interest rates to finance infrastructure projects and help relieve cash strapped State and municipal budgets, there is no better time to take advantage of cheap credit to help create jobs, spur demand, and get people back to work. The prevailing “wisdom” runs counter to such common sense, and the suffering continues. By choice… The slow recovery is because of politics, little else… And from the politics comes this:

For the first time since the 1930s, millions of American households are financially ruined. Families that two years ago enjoyed wealth in stocks and in their homes now have neither. Their 401(k)s have fallen by half, their mortgages are a burden, and their homes are an albatross. For many the best strategy is to mail the keys to the bank. This practically assures that excess supply and collapsed prices in housing will continue for years. Apart from cash—protected by deposit insurance and now desperately being conserved—the American middle class finds today that its major source of wealth is the implicit value of Social Security and Medicare—illiquid and intangible but real and inalienable in a way that home and equity values are not. And so it will remain, as long as future benefits are not cut.

Who, then, claiming to identify with the American middle class, would in their right mind propose cuts to Social Security and Medicare? As it turns out, the President’s Simpson-Bowles “cat food” Commission, the Tea Party caucus in Congress, a presidential candidate, and scads of candidates for lesser office… you get the idea… just about everyone except those progressives that have an appreciation for history and what has gone before.

More on recession dynamics here. And be sure to read this recent post, A Manifesto for Economic Sense.

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