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“On Economic Stupidity”: How Little Many People Who Would Be President Have Learned From The Past

Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign famously focused on “the economy, stupid.” But macroeconomic policy — what to do about recessions — has been largely absent from this year’s election discussion.

Yet economic risks have by no means been banished from the world. And you should be frightened by how little many of the people who would be president have learned from the past eight years.

If you’ve been following the financial news, you know that there’s a lot of market turmoil out there. It’s nothing like 2008, at least so far, but it’s worrisome.

Once again we have a substantial amount of troubled debt, this time not home mortgages but loans to energy companies, hit hard by plunging oil prices. Meanwhile, formerly trendy emerging economies like Brazil are suddenly doing very badly, and China is stumbling. And while the U.S. economy is doing better than almost anyone else’s, we’re definitely not immune to contagion.

Nobody really knows how bad it will be, but financial markets are flashing warnings. Bond markets, in particular, are behaving as if investors expect many years of extreme economic weakness. Long-term U.S. rates are near record lows, but that’s nothing compared with what’s happening overseas, where many interest rates have gone negative.

And super-low interest rates, which mainly reflect market forces, not policy, are creating problems for banks, whose profits depend on being able to lend money for substantially more than they pay on deposits. European banks are in the biggest trouble, but U.S. bank stocks have fallen a lot, too.

It looks, in other words, as if we’re still living in the economic era we entered in 2008 — an era of persistent weakness, in which deflation and depression, not inflation and deficits, are the key challenges. So how well do we think the various presidential wannabes would deal with those challenges?

Well, on the Republican side, the answer is basically, God help us. Economic views on that side of the aisle range from fairly crazy to utterly crazy.

Leading the charge of the utterly crazy is, you won’t be surprised to hear, Donald Trump, who has accused the Fed of being in the tank for Democrats. A few months ago he asserted that Janet Yellen, chairwoman of the Fed, hadn’t raised rates “because Obama told her not to.” Never mind the fact that inflation remains below the Fed’s target and that in the light of current events even the Fed’s small December rate hike now looks like a mistake, as a number of us warned it was.

Yet the truth is that Mr. Trump’s position isn’t that far from the Republican mainstream. After all, Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, not only berated Ben Bernanke, Ms. Yellen’s predecessor, for policies that allegedly risked inflation (which never materialized), but he also dabbled in conspiracy theorizing, accusing Mr. Bernanke of acting to “bail out fiscal policy.”

And even superficially sensible-sounding Republicans go off the deep end on macroeconomic policy. John Kasich’s signature initiative is a balanced-budget amendment that would cripple the economy in a recession, but he’s also a monetary hawk, arguing, bizarrely, that the Fed’s low-interest-rate policy is responsible for wage stagnation.

On the Democratic side, both contenders talk sensibly about macroeconomic policy, with Mr. Sanders rightly declaring that the recent rate hike was a bad move. But Mr. Sanders has also attacked the Federal Reserve in a way Mrs. Clinton has not — and that difference illustrates in miniature both the reasons for his appeal and the reasons to be very worried about his approach.

You see, Mr. Sanders argues that the financial industry has too much influence on the Fed, which is surely true. But his solution is more congressional oversight — and he was one of the few non-Republican senators to vote for a bill, sponsored by Rand Paul, that called for “audits” of Fed monetary policy decisions. (In case you’re wondering, the Fed is already audited regularly in the normal sense of the word.)

Now, the idea of making the Fed accountable sounds good. But Wall Street isn’t the only source of malign pressure on the Fed, and in the actually existing U.S. political situation, such a bill would essentially empower the cranks — the gold-standard-loving, hyperinflation-is-coming types who dominate the modern G.O.P., and have spent the past five or six years trying to bully monetary policy makers into ceasing and desisting from their efforts to prevent economic disaster. Given the economic risks we face, it’s a very good thing that Mr. Sanders’s support wasn’t enough to push the bill over the top.

But even without Mr. Paul’s bill, one shudders to think about how U.S. policy would respond to another downturn if any of the surviving Republican candidates make it to the Oval Office.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, February 12, 2016

February 13, 2016 Posted by | Economic Growth, Economic Policy, Federal Reserve, Recession | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Long Game In The Budget Battles: Advantage Obama

Late last year, when President Obama overhauled his economic team, some people complained that the departure of Larry Summers and Christina Romer left the White House short of first-rate economists. That may have been true, but what the White House lost in intellectual sparkle it more than made up for in Washington know-how. With Gene Sperling as head of the National Economic Council and Jack Lew as budget director, it boasts two veterans of the Clinton-era budget war—two men who know how to outmaneuver right-wing Republicans.

In the past few months, Sperling and Lew have been playing from the nineteen-nineties playbook. Initially, they produced a budget for 2012 that didn’t do very much at all about long-term deficits, and was instantly proclaimed dead on arrival. Budget hawks cried foul. But the White House was playing a long game, and its budget proposal was merely an opening gambit. Then came Congressman Paul Ryan with his radical “roadmap” to budget balance over the next ten years, which featured slashing reductions in domestic spending, more big tax cuts for the rich, and the conversion of Medicare to a voucher program. I irked some readers by saying that Ryan deserved credit for at least making a specific proposal, but I still believe liberals everywhere should be grateful. By spelling out what the Republicans would do to Medicare and Medicaid, he may well have deprived his party of the White House for the foreseeable future.

If you want to know why Ryan’s “budget-cutting” plan makes no financial sense, the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf spells it out very clearly in his latest column, which is based on an analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office analysis. If you want to know why Ryan’s plan is political poison, look at Ezra Klein’s blog, where he cites a recent opinion poll showing that a plurality of Republicans—yes Republicans—think the best option for Medicare is to not cut it at all. To say the very least, Ryan presented President Obama with a big opportunity to occupy the center ground. And despite the jibes about him being a covert socialist, this is clearly the ground on which the President feels most comfortable.

And so to today’s budget speech, in which Obama presented his own eminently centrist plan to reduce the deficit without privatizing Medicare, without slashing domestic spending to the point where many government programs won’t be able to operate, and without introducing any big tax increases. I wouldn’t sweat the individual numbers that Obama presented, such as his claim that his proposals would cut the budget deficit by four trillion dollars over twelve years. Forecasting the budget deficit next year is a challenge. Forecasting the deficit three years out is extremely difficult. Ten-year budget projections are largely meaningless.

What is important is the big picture. Where Ryan proposes radical changes to taxes and spending that would alter the social contract between government and governed, President Obama is arguing that we can trim our way to fiscal sustainability. Some cuts here, some tax breaks eliminated there, and, lo and behold, the deficit will be down to two per cent of G.D.P.

To be fair, the President isn’t saying it will be easy. If by 2014 Congress can’t come up with enough cuts to stabilize the debt-to-G.D.P. ratio, he is calling for a “debt failsafe” trigger that would involve spending reductions in all programs except Social Security, Medicaid, and low-income programs. To slow the growth of entitlement spending, he is proposing to beef up the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which the health-care reform act created, and setting it at a target of keeping Medicare growth to the rate of G.D.P. growth plus half a per cent. Even the Pentagon, which has been largely exempted from budget pressures since 9/11, would have to find some (overly modest) cuts. But compared to what Ryan is proposing, these are all relatively minor changes.

Is the plan credible? Without seeing the details, it is hard to say. In the fact-sheet it circulated today, the White House avoided saying which tax loopholes it is in favor of eliminating—the mortgage interest deduction?—and it also failed to provide any projections about, say, the level of federal spending and debt as a percentage of G.D.P. in 2020. That vagueness was certainly deliberate. At this juncture, the White House still doesn’t want to reveal all of its hand. Rather than placating the budget hawks with a definitive and fully worked out set of proposals, the Administration is betting that the bond market will give it more time—time in which the American people can learn more about the specifics of Ryan’s proposals, and get even less enthusiastic about them.

This game still has a long way to run. But if I were a betting man, and occasionally I am, I would wager on Sperling and Lew coming out on top rather than the congressman from Wisconsin.

By: John Cassidy, The New Yorker, April 13, 2011

April 14, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Democrats, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Ideology, Lawmakers, Medicaid, Medicare, Politics, President Obama, Rep Paul Ryan, Republicans, Right Wing, Social Security | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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