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.

A Manifesto for Economic Sense, and Why We Need One…

Why are policy makers so immune to doing the right thing when it comes to creating and following policy that will ease the current unnecessary crisis of unemployment and reign in the forces that have taken the world into the financial and economic crisis we still face? Here are two views offered to help understand the problem. First a look at what the problem really is and what policy makers can and should do immediately, and then a look at the hubris and criminality policy makers, particularly those on the right, refuse to acknowledge and address that is exacerbating the problem.

From www.manifestoforeconomicsense.org:

A Manifesto for Economic Sense

More than four years after the financial crisis began, the world’s major advanced economies remain deeply depressed, in a scene all too reminiscent of the 1930s. And the reason is simple: we are relying on the same ideas that governed policy in the 1930s. These ideas, long since disproved, involve profound errors both about the causes of the crisis, its nature, and the appropriate response.

These errors have taken deep root in public consciousness and provide the public support for the excessive austerity of current fiscal policies in many countries. So the time is ripe for a Manifesto in which mainstream economists offer the public a more evidence-based analysis of our problems.

  • The causes. Many policy makers insist that the crisis was caused by irresponsible public borrowing. With very few exceptions – other than Greece – this is false. Instead, the conditions for crisis were created by excessive private sector borrowing and lending, including by over-leveraged banks. The collapse of this bubble led to massive falls in output and thus in tax revenue. So the large government deficits we see today are a consequence of the crisis, not its cause.
  • The nature of the crisis. When real estate bubbles on both sides of the Atlantic burst, many parts of the private sector slashed spending in an attempt to pay down past debts. This was a rational response on the part of individuals, but – just like the similar response of debtors in the 1930s – it has proved collectively self-defeating, because one person’s spending is another person’s income. The result of the spending collapse has been an economic depression that has worsened the public debt.
  • The appropriate response. At a time when the private sector is engaged in a collective effort to spend less, public policy should act as a stabilizing force, attempting to sustain spending. At the very least we should not be making things worse by big cuts in government spending or big increases in tax rates on ordinary people. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what many governments are now doing.
  • The big mistake. After responding well in the first, acute phase of the economic crisis, conventional policy wisdom took a wrong turn – focusing on government deficits, which are mainly the result of a crisis-induced plunge in revenue, and arguing that the public sector should attempt to reduce its debts in tandem with the private sector. As a result, instead of playing a stabilizing role, fiscal policy has ended up reinforcing the dampening effects of private-sector spending cuts.

In the face of a less severe shock, monetary policy could take up the slack. But with interest rates close to zero, monetary policy – while it should do all it can – cannot do the whole job. There must of course be a medium-term plan for reducing the government deficit. But if this is too front-loaded it can easily be self-defeating by aborting the recovery. A key priority now is to reduce unemployment, before it becomes endemic, making recovery and future deficit reduction even more difficult.

How do those who support present policies answer the argument we have just made? They use two quite different arguments in support of their case.

The confidence argument. Their first argument is that government deficits will raise interest rates and thus prevent recovery. By contrast, they argue, austerity will increase confidence and thus encourage recovery.

But there is no evidence at all in favour of this argument. First, despite exceptionally high deficits, interest rates today are unprecedentedly low in all major countries where there is a normally functioning central bank. This is true even in Japan where the government debt now exceeds 200% of annual GDP; and past downgrades by the rating agencies here have had no effect on Japanese interest rates. Interest rates are only high in some Euro countries, because the ECB is not allowed to act as lender of last resort to the government. Elsewhere the central bank can always, if needed, fund the deficit, leaving the bond market unaffected.

Moreover past experience includes no relevant case where budget cuts have actually generated increased economic activity. The IMF has studied 173 cases of budget cuts in individual countries and found that the consistent result is economic contraction. In the handful of cases in which fiscal consolidation was followed by growth, the main channels were a currency depreciation against a strong world market, not a current possibility. The lesson of the IMF’s study is clear – budget cuts retard recovery. And that is what is happening now – the countries with the biggest budget cuts have experienced the biggest falls in output.

For the truth is, as we can now see, that budget cuts do not inspire business confidence. Companies will only invest when they can foresee enough customers with enough income to spend. Austerity discourages investment.

So there is massive evidence against the confidence argument; all the alleged evidence in favor of the doctrine has evaporated on closer examination.

The structural argument. A second argument against expanding demand is that output is in fact constrained on the supply side – by structural imbalances. If this theory were right, however, at least some parts of our economies ought to be at full stretch, and so should some occupations. But in most countries that is just not the case. Every major sector of our economies is struggling, and every occupation has higher unemployment than usual. So the problem must be a general lack of spending and demand.

In the 1930s the same structural argument was used against proactive spending policies in the U.S. But as spending rose between 1940 and 1942, output rose by 20%. So the problem in the 1930s, as now, was a shortage of demand not of supply.

As a result of their mistaken ideas, many Western policy-makers are inflicting massive suffering on their peoples. But the ideas they espouse about how to handle recessions were rejected by nearly all economists after the disasters of the 1930s, and for the following forty years or so the West enjoyed an unparalleled period of economic stability and low unemployment. It is tragic that in recent years the old ideas have again taken root. But we can no longer accept a situation where mistaken fears of higher interest rates weigh more highly with policy-makers than the horrors of mass unemployment.

Better policies will differ between countries and need detailed debate. But they must be based on a correct analysis of the problem. We therefore urge all economists and others who agree with the broad thrust of this Manifesto to register their agreement at http://www.manifestoforeconomicsense.org, and to publically argue the case for a sounder approach. The whole world suffers when men and women are silent about what they know is wrong.

And why we need economic common sense…

Matt Taibbi contributing editor of The Rolling Stone magazine, and Yves Smith, author of Econned, and creator of the blog http://www.nakedcapitalism.com, explain against the backdrop of JP Morgan’s recent loss on (now estimated at nearly $9 billion) of bets hedging the bank’s investment positions, how Wall Street with Mafia-like fixing of bids, continuing government largess in corporate welfare propping up operations, and expertise at gaming the system with depositor funds epitomizes the greed that has played it’s role in destroying municipal, state, and national budgets, causing so much suffering through the resulting austerity measures, bailouts for the wealthiest, reductions in safety net protections to the elderly, children, the disabled, and the poor. Republican senators fawned over JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon in hearings earlier in June, ignoring JP Morgan’s record of criminal abuse evident in the fines paid for illegally foreclosing mortgages of military service men and women serving overseas, or for bid-rigging for municipal bonds and CDO fraud for which they paid fines of $228mil and $153mil, respectively, last year. Being too big to fail (privatizing profits, while socializing the risks inherent in gaining those profits) is apparently the neo-liberal corporatocracy the current crop of “trickle-down” economic faith-healers believe is the “American way” to freedom and liberty…

How Much Inequality?

A brief essay by Daniel Little on the website UnderstandingSociety asks the following questions, examining the issues of inequality in income and opportunity from moral, social justice, social cohesiveness, and utilitarian perspectives, with links to additional writings on each view.

How much inequality is too much?  Answers range from Gracchus Babeuf (all inequalities are unjust) to Ayn Rand (there is no moral limit on the extent of inequalities a society can embody). Is there any reasoned basis for answering the question?  What kinds of criteria might we use to try to answer this kind of question?

Ayn Rand’s novels appear to have infected a large number of people with the notion that moral considerations of inequality in a society are inappropriate when compared to the rights and motivations of the individual, which argument is helping fuel the divisive gridlock on economic matters policy makers are facing in States and the Federal government. The author of a budget proposal lacking a moral compass, Paul Ryan, is awarded a “fiscal responsibility” award, while legislation to aid job creation and to continue benefits for millions of the long-term unemployed is routinely blocked, growing an underclass of otherwise productive workers unable to return to their former areas of expertise or income levels. The States under growing budget constraints choose to cut revenues, primarily for those at the top of the income scale, while they reduce spending, placing the burden of strangled government on the shoulders of the unemployed, the elderly, children, the sick, and the disabled. It is not hard to see the moral inequality of these actions, and as Joseph Stiglitz in his commentary and latest book, The Price of Inequality, How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, points out social cohesiveness is at risk as those in the vice of unequal policy and advantage in society reject and resist such policy. (More here.)

America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them. It is this sense of an unjust system without opportunity that has given rise to the conflagrations in the Middle East: rising food prices and growing and persistent youth unemployment simply served as kindling. With youth unemployment in America at around 20 percent (and in some locations, and among some socio-demographic groups, at twice that); with one out of six Americans desiring a full-time job not able to get one; with one out of seven Americans on food stamps (and about the same number suffering from “food insecurity”)—given all this, there is ample evidence that something has blocked the vaunted “trickling down” from the top 1 percent to everyone else. All of this is having the predictable effect of creating alienation—voter turnout among those in their 20s in the last election stood at 21 percent, comparable to the unemployment rate.

And the driver of this alienation…? The “anything goes” philosophy from the right that has promoted security force violence against students and demonstrators protesting the effects of inequality, too big to fail industries that privatize their profits while socializing the risks they take to realize their profits, and unresponsive government unwilling and unable to represent the vast majority of people in their societies. Can we do better? Let us hope so…

Nick Hanauer’s “Controversial” TED talk

So, really, who are the “job creators?” Not those the political class would have you believe… the hallowed 1%. The following TED talk is a simple, though not simplistic, explanation of how the economy really works so far as job creation is concerned, and why building and maintaining a strong middle class is so important. The feedback loop between business and the middle class is what creates jobs, not the incredibly wrongheaded economic ideas that have gained currency today, of an almost deified set of “job creators,” the very wealthy, an idea egged on by self-serving politicos, the corporate media, and economically unenlightened journalism.

Paul Ryan’s draconian and ridiculous budget Congressional Republicans have in lockstep backed, or Maine Governor Paul LePage’s and the Republican legislature’s cruel supplemental budget, both based on thoroughly discredited “trickle down” economic theories of Hayek and the “Chicago boys” channeling Milton Friedman, have been shown over and over to be a drag on the economy, slowing job creation, creating and extending misery for those under-employed or among the long-term unemployed.

Without an enlightened understanding of how our macro-economy works, things will only get worse. The redistribution of wealth and opportunity will continue to flow upwards, the middle class will continue to shrink creating an even larger underclass desperate for relief from those that seem to have no interest or ability in providing relief, their elected representatives. The current obsession with perpetual war, the security state, and a war economy that displaces useful manufacturing with armaments and weaponry serves the elite businesses that dominate the world economy. Governments captured by the elite in this mindset have little choice but to deliver… to the detriment of the masses who must comply in order to survive.

Have a look, and decide for yourself…

When Ignorance Sits In Power

I must admit the following brought tears to my eyes. This from Brad Delong:

Down the Insurance Rabbit Hole: Justice Antonin Scalia subsequently expressed skepticism about forcing the young to buy insurance: “When they think they have a substantial risk of incurring high medical bills, they’ll buy insurance, like the rest of us.”

May the justices please meet my sister-in-law. On Feb. 8, she was a healthy 32-year-old, who was seven and a half months pregnant with her first baby. On Feb. 9, she was a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down by a car accident that damaged her spine. Miraculously, the baby, born by emergency C-section, is healthy. Were the Obama health care reforms already in place, my brother and sister-in-law’s situation — insurance-wise and financially — would be far less dire. My brother’s small employer — he is the manager of a metal-fabrication shop — does not offer health insurance, which was too expensive for them to buy on their own. Fortunately, my sister-in-law had enrolled in the Access for Infants and Mothers program, California’s insurance plan for middle-income pregnant women. AIM coverage extends 60 days postpartum and paid for her stay in intensive care and early rehabilitation.

But when the 60 days is up next week, the family will fall through the welfare medicine rabbit hole….

[T]he baby fares best. He is insured through Healthy Families, California’s version of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the federal-state plan for lower-income children ineligible for Medicaid…. California is relatively generous, with eligibility extending up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level of $19,090 for a family of three; 27 states have lower limits. When the AIM coverage expires, my sister-in-law will be covered by Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid, because she is disabled and has limited income. But because my brother works, they are subject to cost-sharing: they pay the first $1,100 of her health costs each month…. They must also meet the Medi-Cal asset test: beyond their house and one vehicle, they can hold $3,150 in total assets, a limit last adjusted in 1989. They cannot save for retirement (retirement plans are not exempt from the asset test in California, as they are in some states)…. These are the limitations under which 7.5 million Medi-Cal recipients live. Nationwide, more than 50 million people are covered by their states’ version of Medicaid. Some states are more lenient in their income and asset tests, others less so. Nowhere is life in these programs a picnic.

That said, Medicaid is an important safety net for the poor, and the Obama reform would expand the program to cover all Americans under 133 percent of the poverty level (currently one has to be both poor and categorically eligible — a child or a pregnant woman, for example). But for the middle class who are thrust into Medicaid by circumstance, the program’s strictures are truly life-altering….

Their best hope is the survival of the Obama reform. Perhaps my brother can get a job that offers health insurance for the family, but without the reform’s protections, like the prohibition on denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, removal of annual and lifetime insurance caps, and reinsurance for large claims, there is no guarantee that they could obtain insurance. More likely, they would buy insurance on a health exchange. Here in Massachusetts, where such an exchange is in place, they could have purchased a plan with an affordable premium (at their income level, the monthly premiums range from $39 to $91 per adult). And these money and insurance issues would not have added to the other stresses in their profoundly changed lives.

Instead, their financial future is shattered…. One incident in particular struck me to the core. A woman from a small community nearby had something for us. A cancer survivor, she had decided to “give back” by placing donation cans in stores around town. She had finished her drive and consolidated the money. The small coffee can she handed over to me and my sister-in-law had a slit in the lid and was decorated with pink felt and ribbons, now a little smudged from handling. Inside were several hundred dollars in small bills. We burst into tears. This is social policy in the richest nation in the history of the world.

Growth, Inequality, Policy, and Power: Connecting the Dots

Another new Teach-In addition comes by way of a slideshow presentation given by Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities during a talk in the Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor of Social Justice Lecture series at the University of Maryland in March 2012. This is an easy to follow discussion of the causes of our present inequality and how the prevalent economic policy agenda is exacerbating inequality, a growth in poverty as opposed to fair economic growth, and a rise in children living in poverty.

Government Capture is the American Condition

American corporations today are like the great European monarchies of yore: They have the power to control the rules under which they function and to direct the allocation of public resources. This is not a prediction of what’s to come; this is a simple statement of the present state of affairs. Corporations have effectively captured the United States: its judiciary, its political system, and its national wealth, without assuming any of the responsibilities of dominion. Evidence of government capture is everywhere.
Six Symptoms of Government Capture:
  1. The “smoking gun” is CEO pay.
  2. Retirement risk has been transferred to employees.
  3. Corporate money now controls every stage of politics — legislative, executive, and ultimately judicial.
  4. Government Capture has been further implemented through the extensive lobbying power of corporations.
  5. The most powerful CEOs are above the reach of the law and beyond its effective enforcement.
  6. Government capture has been perpetuated through the removal of property “off shore,” where it is neither regulated nor taxed.
Government cannot and will not hold corporations to account. That much is now obvious.  Indeed, the dawning realization of this truth is what has informed the Occupy movement, but only the owners of corporations can create the accountability that will ultimately unwind the knot of government capture.
Continue reading here.

Another View on the Politics Prolonging the Lesser Depression

This VOXEU article discusses the politics that arise in the aftermath of financial crises on a broader scale, not just our current one.

Political environments appear systematically different in the aftermath of a financial crisis relative to before the crisis. This column argues that the ensuing gridlock and the delay in potentially beneficial policy reforms should come as no surprise.

Financial crises of all colours (banking, currency, inflation, or debt crises) leave deep marks on an economy. Deep economic contractions, both in output and employment, are systematic in the interim and in the aftermath of financial crises, as thoroughly documented in research by Reinhart and Rogoff (2009) and Reinhart and Reinhart (2010).

Sustained waves of volatility, often resulting in secondary crises (e.g. debt crises following banking crashes), are almost the norm in the post-crisis period (Reinhart and Rogoff 2011).

What exactly occurs in the aftermath of financial crises that makes recovering from such shocks so hard? This column argues that the answer may lie mostly with the politics, not the economics.

I might disagree with the authors that the Occupy movement is primarily a “leftist” movement, but the overwhelming weight of this analysis that the politics of the extremes are at play here is difficult to dismiss. With the dominant culture favoring the corporatist alignments of corporation, wealth, and the elite political class the extreme politics prolonging the current Lesser Depression, as Paul Krugman describes our present economic status, can be best described as that which favors inequality at the expense of the vast majority of the public in the world’s nations today. Austerity in Europe is pushing the EU into a recession, and while the Federal government in the US has largely avoided the drastic austerity crippling Britain, Spain, Ireland, Portugal,  and Greece states and local municipalities in the US are being forced into austere budget cuts that defy logic, are counter-productive to growth, largely rooted in extreme political economics espoused by both parties that for the past 40 years has helped create the difficulties and inequality we are now experiencing.


What We Have Become…

                                                               Pavel Constantin, Cagle Cartoons, Romania


What does it say about democracy in the US when this cartoon coming out of a former communist country in Eastern Europe so clearly describes our corporatist state where an elite political class enjoys the benefits of police state protections against the people? Stay in line, and nobody will get hurt…

Paul Krugman’s Playboy Interview

Paul Krugman speaks with Playboy about the financial crisis and why the ongoing slow recovery is unnecessary, the result of politics, not economics. Read the entire article, but here are a few of the “money” quotes:

PLAYBOY: Some of [the] debate is irrelevant to the average person. All they know is they don’t have a job or they don’t have a job that pays enough.

KRUGMAN: The point is there’s a tremendous amount of suffering. A lot of America is much worse off than it was four years ago. I think the main reason you should be angry about it is that it’s gratuitous. This doesn’t have to be happening. We actually have the tools to make most of this go away. If we could throw aside the political prejudices and bad ideas that are crippling us, in 18 months we could be back to something that feels like a much better economy.

On the utility of union organizing:

PLAYBOY: Is it accurate to simplify our modern economy as a choice between working for a high-wage General Motors model versus the low-wage Walmart strategy?

KRUGMAN: I think the choice we made, really without understanding that we were making the choice, was to make Walmart jobs low paying. They didn’t have to be. In a different legal environment, a megacorporation with more than a million employees might well have been a company with a union that resulted in decent wages. We think of Walmart jobs as being low wage with 50 percent turnover every year because that’s the way we’ve allowed it to develop. But it didn’t have to be that way. If the rise of big-box stores had not taken place under the Reaganite rules of the game, with employers free to do whatever they wanted to block union organizing, we might have had a different result. Part of the hysterical opposition to the auto-industry bailout was the notion that we were bailing out well-paid workers with union jobs.

On the policy failures that have prolonged unemployment at demoralizing low levels that hurt the country, its labor force, based on backward political thinking:

PLAYBOY: So people in America today are suffering when they don’t have to be because of policy makers who won’t do the right thing?

KRUGMAN: That’s right. I’ve gotten some grief for my remark that if it were announced that we faced a threat from space aliens and needed to build up to defend ourselves, we’d have full employment in a year and a half. But that’s true. Why couldn’t we do that to repair our sewer systems and put an extra tunnel under the Hudson instead of to fight imaginary space aliens? Everybody in the world except us is doing a lot of investment in infrastructure and education. This is the country of the Erie Canal and the Interstate Highway System. The Erie Canal was a huge public infrastructure project financed with no private or public-private partnership. Can you imagine doing that in 21st century America? We really have slid backward for the past 200 years from the kinds of things we used to understand needed to be done now and then. And all of that because we are shackled to the wrong ideas.

(The interview that appears in the link above in a recent edition of Playboy, so if a little suggestive skin is offensive to you, reader beware.)

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