Early Stimulus Worries: Some readers have asked for cites in which I warned early on that the Obama stimulus was too small and would end up being seen as a failure. Here’s my initial math. Here’s my reaction on the ARRA’s passage. And here’s my early take on the political economy. I really wish I hadn’t been right.
January 8, 2009:
The Obama Gap: Mr. Obama’s prescription doesn’t live up to his diagnosis. The economic plan he’s offering isn’t as strong as his language about the economic threat. In fact, it falls well short of what’s needed…. [T]he Obama plan is nowhere near big enough to fill this “output gap.”… The budget office says that in the absence of a stimulus plan, the unemployment rate would rise above 9 percent by early 2010, and stay high for years to come. Grim as this projection is, by the way, it’s actually optimistic compared with some independent forecasts….
To close a gap of more than $2 trillion — possibly a lot more, if the budget office projections turn out to be too optimistic — Mr. Obama offers a $775 billion plan. And that’s not enough. Now, fiscal stimulus can sometimes have a “multiplier” effect…. Standard estimates suggest that a dollar of public spending raises G.D.P. by around $1.50. But only about 60 percent of the Obama plan consists of public spending. The rest consists of tax cuts — and many economists are skeptical about how much these tax cuts, especially the tax breaks for business, will actually do to boost spending…. [T]he Obama plan is unlikely to close more than half of the looming output gap, and could easily end up doing less than a third of the job.
Why isn’t Mr. Obama trying to do more?
Is the plan being limited by fear of debt? There are dangers associated with large-scale government borrowing — and this week’s C.B.O. report projected a $1.2 trillion deficit for this year. But it would be even more dangerous to fall short in rescuing the economy…. Is the plan being limited by a lack of spending opportunities? There are only a limited number of “shovel-ready” public investment projects — that is, projects that can be started quickly enough to help the economy in the near term. But there are other forms of public spending, especially on health care, that could do good while aiding the economy in its hour of need.
Or is the plan being limited by political caution?...
Whatever the explanation, the Obama plan just doesn’t look adequate to the economy’s need. To be sure, a third of a loaf is better than none. But right now we seem to be facing two major economic gaps: the gap between the economy’s potential and its likely performance, and the gap between Mr. Obama’s stern economic rhetoric and his somewhat disappointing economic plan.
February 12, 2009:
Failure to Rise: By any normal political standards, this week’s Congressional agreement on an economic stimulus package was a great victory for President Obama. He got more or less what he asked for: almost $800 billion to rescue the economy, with most of the money allocated to spending rather than tax cuts. Break out the Champagne!
Or maybe not. These aren’t normal times, so normal political standards don’t apply: Mr. Obama’s victory feels more than a bit like defeat. The stimulus bill looks helpful but inadequate, especially when combined with a disappointing plan for rescuing the banks. And the politics of the stimulus fight have made nonsense of Mr. Obama’s postpartisan dreams….
In both the House and the Senate, the vast majority of Republicans rallied behind the idea that the appropriate response to the abject failure of the Bush administration’s tax cuts is more Bush-style tax cuts. And the rhetorical response of conservatives to the stimulus plan — which will, it’s worth bearing in mind, cost substantially less than either the Bush administration’s $2 trillion in tax cuts or the $1 trillion and counting spent in Iraq — has bordered on the deranged…. [T]he ugliness of the political debate matters because it raises doubts about the Obama administration’s ability to come back for more if, as seems likely, the stimulus bill proves inadequate.
For while Mr. Obama got more or less what he asked for, he almost certainly didn’t ask for enough… The Congressional Budget Office… predicts that over the next three years there will be a $2.9 trillion gap between what the economy could produce and what it will actually produce. And $800 billion, while it sounds like a lot of money, isn’t nearly enough to bridge that chasm.
Officially, the administration insists that the plan is adequate to the economy’s need. But few economists agree. And it’s widely believed that political considerations led to a plan that was weaker and contains more tax cuts than it should have — that Mr. Obama compromised in advance in the hope of gaining broad bipartisan support. We’ve just seen how well that worked.
Now, the chances that the fiscal stimulus will prove adequate would be higher if it were accompanied by an effective financial rescue…. The plan sketched out by Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wasn’t bad, exactly. What it was, instead, was vague…. Over all, the effect was to kick the can down the road. And that’s not good enough….
I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — a feeling that America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years. The best may not lack all conviction, but they seem alarmingly willing to settle for half-measures. And the worst are, as ever, full of passionate intensity, oblivious to the grotesque failure of their doctrine in practice. There’s still time to turn this around. But Mr. Obama has to be stronger looking forward. Otherwise, the verdict on this crisis might be that no, we can’t.
March 8, 2009:
Behind the Curve: President Obama’s plan to stimulate the economy was “massive,” “giant,” “enormous.” So the American people were told, especially by TV news, during the run-up to the stimulus vote. Watching the news, you might have thought that the only question was whether the plan was too big, too ambitious.
Yet many economists, myself included, actually argued that the plan was too small and too cautious. The latest data confirm those worries — and suggest that the Obama administration’s economic policies are already falling behind the curve….
There are now three big questions about economic policy. First, does the administration realize that it isn’t doing enough? Second, is it prepared to do more? Third, will Congress go along with stronger policies?
On the first two questions, I found Mr. Obama’s latest interview with The Times anything but reassuring. “Our belief and expectation is that we will get all the pillars in place for recovery this year,” the president declared — a belief and expectation that isn’t backed by any data or model I’m aware of. To be sure, leaders are supposed to sound calm and in control. But in the face of the dismal data, this remark sounded out of touch. And there was no hint in the interview of readiness to do more…. 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.
Sooner or later the administration will realize that more must be done. But when it comes back for more money, will Congress go along? Republicans are now firmly committed to the view that we should do nothing…. The broader public, by contrast, favors strong action…. But will that support still be there, say, six months from now? Also, an overwhelming majority believes that the government is spending too much to help large financial institutions. This suggests that the administration’s money-for-nothing financial policy will eventually deplete its political capital.
So here’s the picture that scares me: It’s September 2009, the unemployment rate has passed 9 percent, and despite the early round of stimulus spending it’s still headed up. Mr. Obama finally concedes that a bigger stimulus is needed. But he can’t get his new plan through Congress because approval for his economic policies has plummeted, partly because his policies are seen to have failed, partly because job-creation policies are conflated in the public mind with deeply unpopular bank bailouts. And as a result, the recession rages on, unchecked.
O.K., that’s a warning, not a prediction. But economic policy is falling behind the curve, and there’s a real, growing danger that it will never catch up.