economy


My close friend Todd and I have a running political debate about the legacy-in-the-making of Pres. Obama. This debate dates back to a wee hours of the morning dinner in Vegas after a full day of watching the Mosley – Mayweather fight and playing countless hours of poker, but please overlook its dubious origins, as I do.

Todd is fond of ticking off the legislative accomplishments of the past two years. Stimulus, healthcare reform, financial regulation reform, and here of late, the tax cut extensions, START treaty and repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Personally, I have strong disagreements with some of these accomplishments. I think the healthcare reform that finally passed is a bizarre amalgamation of ideas that somehow collectively fails to address either imperative facing us: the imperative of universal coverage and the imperative of cost containment. Todd would say that presidents have tried and failed (or not even tried) for decades to address this issue, and Obama should be lauded for getting this done. True, but ultimately there is something not at all satisfying about the result. I also rather dislike the recent tax cut extension legislation, for its devastating impact on current deficits.

But I do give Todd his due. Obama’s legislative accomplishments have been astonishing. Where Todd and I begin to part company is the long view. It is Obama’s failure to capture the zeitgeist of America these days, or, perhaps better said, having briefly captured it, his failure to keep hold of it and shape it. There was a window, roughly from the time that he vanquished Hillary Clinton in the primaries until the Republicans seized control of the healthcare debate narrative, during which Obama was perfectly aligned with America’s mood. His particular brand of political freshness and intellectual candor felt just right.

Since the end of that period, America’s mood has shifted rapidly while Obama’s pitch has not. This puts Obama’s legacy in peril. Already, a Republican-majority House of Representatives prepares to thunder into town with the very specific intent of clipping the wings of Obama’s healthcare program, his energy program, his budget vision, his financial reforms. Count me among those who believe Obama will win reelection, probably even handily. This is based on two core ideas: that the economy will continue to improve over the next two years, and that Obama remains by far the most popular policial brand in the country.

Even assuming his relection, though, I think the question is completely valid: What will remain of Obama’s legislative legacy after six more years? After 20? This is what I have been trying to express to Todd. Is it good enough if a president leads Washington through an amazing legislative agenda, only to find that the country hasn’t deeply embraced the political values needed to sustain that work? For example, Pres. Bush led us through a dizzying recalibration of the national security/personal liberty tradeoff in the wake of 9-11, telling us — correctly, in my opinion — that this required a multigenerational commitment to defeating the forces of radical Islam. Yet less than a decade later, our personal liberty values are once again overtaking our national security concerns, as support is dissipating for everything from military action in Afghanistan to aggressive TSA screening procedures. It seems to me that Bush was more successul at getting the policy implemented than he was at forging an enduring national consensus around those policies.

That sounds like Obama. I contrast both Bush and Obama with two presidents who I think transcended these political boundaries. The first was Franklin Roosevelt. Of course he sheparded a staggering remaking of the legislative map in the 1930s, but he went far beyond that. He ushered in five decades during which his progressive vision dominated the political landscape. Through presidencies Democrat and Republican, the nation consistently reflected that progressive mentality, with a willingness to employ the powers of government to shape our economic and cultural lives. The result was the creation of the broadest, strongest middle class in history of the planet.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan came along, and his message of the danger of overextended government has remained the single most dominant theme in American politics for three decades now. Even with mostly Democratic control of Congress during those years, and the presidency of Bill Clinton, Americans have remained solidly committed to this defining principle. Voters proved this in 2006 and 2008, brusquely shoving aside even Republicans, usually reliable partners of the limited government ethic, for their failure to adhere to the creed.

This brings us to the Obama question. Is he merely the next in a succession of elected leaders consigned to operate within the Reagan framework, or is he the first in line to set the nation on a new political course for the decades? Obama’s curse may be that his unmatched rhetorical skills during the campaign gave us a tantalizing whiff of being the next FDR or Reagan. He felt transcendent. But so far, despite his towering legislative achievements, he has not transcended. That’s not a horrible indictment. Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton would be listed among such competent presidents who rode their respective existing waves to considerable policy advancement.

Five years from now, or ten, or twenty, the nation will face challenges that demand courageous, thoughtful, far-sighted action by our government. Today’s political reality is that, shaped by the Reagan legacy, we are not disposed to trusting our government to do so. If Obama is able to transform the landscape, give back to us a willingness to invest our government with confidence and optimism, then he will have transcended the political conventions of his time and ushered in a new era. Otherwise, we will face these challenges with the underpowered armature of a Reagan-era viewpoint.

I hope he succeeds. I haven’t seen it yet. Lots of important legislation, Todd, but not that.

President Obama is meeting with Republican Congressional leaders today, ostensibly to work out a game plan for the lame duck session. Or maybe it’s just crab cakes day in the White House kitchen, and who wants to miss out on that, yanno?

The two big issues on the agenda are the extension of unemployment benefits, which expire after today, and the extension of the Bush tax cuts, which expire on December 31. On the tax cut piece, the argument is limited to whether the tax cut from 39% to 36%, which applies to the highest tax bracket or about 2% of the population, should be extended. Everyone agrees on extending tax cuts for the other 98% of taxpayers.

The policy dilemma is that Republicans have pledged both to cut the deficit (which calls for letting the tax cuts expire) and to lower taxes (which, of course, calls for extending the tax cuts). President Obama should use that dilemma to his — and the economy’s — advantage today. He should present the Republicans with a public statement that says this:

“We are pleased to announce we have reached an agreement with the President to extend the tax cuts enacted earlier this decade for all Americans. While we recognize that the economy has rebounded these past two years, we also know that it is a fragile recovery. We have a responsibility to preserve and expand that recovery, so that the private sector can create more desperately needed jobs in the months to come. Extending these tax cuts for all Americans is an essential step in promoting that recovery.
“At the same time, we are troubled by the impact of extending these tax cuts on the federal deficit. Our agreement with the president today will add more than $2 trillion to our national debt over the coming years. We ask the American people to understand that what is necessary to solve today’s jobs crisis may increase federal deficits in the short run. We pledge to work with the president to find long term solutions to our fiscal crisis, solutions that bring government spending to a sustainable level without disrupting the ongoing recovery.”

If the Congressional Republicans agree to make, and adhere to, this statement, couldn’t the president go along? And wouldn’t that be good for America?

“Morning Joe” had as guests this morning both Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) and Rep. John Shaddeg (R-AZ). These are two of the more thoughtful, reasonable Congressional members of either party. What struck me, though, is the formulation of economic policy that they were putting forth.

Rep. Shaddeg was being asked one of the media’s favorite questions these days, namely, why it is that extending unemployment benefits has to be “paid for,” but extending the Bush-era tax cuts does not. The response — predictable from either party — was that this was all about jobs. Shaddeg made the point that unemployed people don’t spend those unemployment benefits; they hold on to the money for as long as they can. Rep. Schock’s contribution was that the unemployed don’t hire people, business owners do.

To me, this is a complete distortion of economic reality. Of course business owners do the hiring, but why do they hire? They hire for one reason and one reason only: they need the workers to meet the demand for their goods or services. Certainly not because their taxes are lower (or higher). Where does the demand for goods and services come from? From consumer spending, mostly. Create more consumers, or increase the spending of the consumers we have, and demand goes up… and then hiring goes up. It’s pretty simple really. Except somehow it confounds the Washington crowd.

I am not making the case for or against extending unemployment benefits, nor the case for or against extending tax cuts. My point is that we will never get economically sound policy out of Congress if our elected representatives continue to put forth economic nonsense as the basis for policy.

Put very simply, we have to choose between more job creation or more debt reduction, at least in the short run. Republicans have come into town promising both. That’s nonsense. Those two policy aims, each important and valuable in its own right, work at cross purposes, at least in the short run. Pick one. You want job creation? Then extend unemployment benefits and extend the tax cuts — but be honest and tell the American people that it is necessary to raise deficits in the short term to stimulate those jobs. You want debt reduction? Then cut off the unemployment benefits and let the tax cuts expire — but be honest and tell the American people that job creation will suffer in the short run.

It has been four  five six days since the mid-term elections, and during that time I have started and abandoned four six seven different posts on that topic. So many different emotions have filled me. I may have needed at least little space to make better sense of them. A fable (kind of) to start off…

Once, there was a group of three Mexicans who set out on a fishing boat to catch sharks.  However, their boat soon experienced adverse winds and mechanical difficulties, and they were lost at sea. The fishermen existing on nothing but raw fish, rain water and the tiny amounts of additional fresh water they could condense and trap. Finally, after nine months and nine days, they were picked up by another fishing vessel, some 5500 miles from where they had started. (True story)
Of course, the Mexican fisherman were malnourished and emaciated. The captain of the ship that rescued them, a Democrat, immediately ordered that a sumptuous feast be brought forth for the starving men. They ate and ate until they had had their fill, gorging themselves on rich roast meats and delectable baked goods and every manner of decadent indulgence.
The First Mate of the rescue boat, himself a Republican, thought ill of the captain’s plan, however. He immediately dashed off a wire to the corporate office, complaining that the feast had ruined the food budget for the vessel’s entire trip. What is more, he strenuously objected to the eating habits of the rescued men. “They ate with reckless abandon,” he reported. “Plate after plate of rich, fatty food. To eat like that only will lead to grave ill health — obesity and heart disease and diabetes and worse. This must be stopped immediately,” he concluded.
The corporate managers summoned the boat back to the harbor, and launched an inquiry into the captain’s actions. They heard evidence from nutritionists and health experts, who confirmed the First Mate’s fears. No one could remain healthy on such a diet as this, they concluded. The captain was reprimanded for his poor judgment, and ordered not to pick up any more lost fisherman for the remainder of his commission. The next day, he apologized to the corporate managers, although many, including the First Mate, felt that he still didn’t really ‘get’ it. They vowed to watch his every move with great vigilance, lest his insidious plan come to pass, and every fisherman on the sea become obese and unhealthy.

And that is where I find myself after the elections. I am not disheartened that the electorate has focused its attention on putting America on a healthy diet. I am disheartened that the electorate seems not to have distinguished between the necessary government actions to turn back a catastrophic recession — a spending “feast” fed to starving fishermen, if you will — and the long-term fiscal realities that we must face.

Somewhere, somehow, successful candidates managed to turn the government’s response to the recent economic crisis upside down. Not only did they portray the government’s response as ineffective, they managed to sell it as the cause of the crisis. That is absurd. Without the Bush/Obama TARP and stimulus interventions, today unemployment would be much higher, and economic growth would be much weaker (perhaps even the economy still contracting), and bankruptcies and mortage defaults would be at even higher levels, and government spending (on safety net programs) would be considerably higher, and government receipts would be much lower (on a smaller economy; all capital losses, no gains), and federal deficits would be much higher, and federal debt would be growing much faster.

But that’s not what seemed to be in people’s minds last Tuesday. Voters seemed to think that runaway spending and an expansionist view of government had created the economic crisis, had created the huge deficits and growing federal debt.  They seemed to be oblivious to the reality that the campaign promises of many of the newly elected — to move immediately toward cutting spending and balancing the budget — likely would push the fragile economy right back into recession, economic contraction, job losses and all the woes that derive from that.

I would love to have an honest debate in this country about the proper size and scope of government, about how we really do address structural over-spending; about how to use tax policy to most effectively promote economic growth. Unfortunately, the mid-term elections were not that debate. They were a debate between the cynical fantasy of the minority party (to cut taxes and cut spending so as to balance the budget, all to end the current recession) and the naive oblivion of the majority party (failing to put forth a necessary agenda to address the country’s long-term structural deficits).

Gahhh.

I just heard an appalling radio ad. The narrator, in the role of president of some foreclosure assistance firm, was recounting the story of his parents. How they got a mortgage to buy their home, “did everything right,” and then both got laid off. This dutiful son, so it seems, stepped in, but after seven months could not get the bank to agree to loan modifications. So he “x-rayed” the loan agreements, found illegal terms (“like are in 80% of all mortgages”), and sued the lender. The proud punch line? “Twenty-seven months later, they are still in their house.”

The part of the story overlooked in the ad is, of course, that these probably apocryphal parents weren’t actually paying the loan! That’s a damned big detail to omit.

We all grieve personally for the brother, mother, neighbor, co-worker, laid-off ex co-worker and others who have lost their homes through this dreadful housing and employment market. Still, can it possibly be the right or equitable solution to prevent lenders from seizing the legitimate collateral securing the legitimate loan from people who are truly not paying their debts?

Of course not. Just another example of the greedy something-for-nothing culture that has taken hold of this nation.

Instead of all this nonsense, how about we attend to our “safety net” — remember that quaint notion? We can’t prevent people from stumbling. But we can ease them back onto their feet when they do.

What can we say about this? Income inequality has increased hugely in recent decades: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/business/17view.html?hpw.

What does this say about, for example, the debate in Congress right now about extending the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% versus the rest of taxpayers?

In the midst of all the current commotion about foreclosures — can foreclosures be avoided because of loan documentation defects? will the government step in to stem the tide? — just a word of caution. Remember that if lenders do not believe they have rational and reliable means within the legal system to enforce their collection rights, then they very quickly cease being lenders. Sure, it may sound great to some borrowers that the day of reckoning is deferred. But what does that mean really? Can a system where lenders lend and borrowers do not repay really be desirable? Or sustainable?

As the owner of a business with debts, and as, for that matter, a person with a home mortgage, I have learned one thing: Life gets a lot less complicated if you simply accept that you are going to repay your debts. Not to overlook the very real hardship now for people who lacked the personal judgment to avoid overleveraging on a house at the height of the bubble, but c’mon: If you can carry the mortgage, do so; if you can’t, let the bank take back the house. You’re only losing what you never woulda coulda shoulda had in the first place.

I final word. Right out of college, I was a banker for a couple of years. (Hated, hated, HATED it, by the way.) I remember the bank president addressing the young recruits thusly: “You are all excited to begin your careers as lenders. I am here to change that. Lending is easy. Your career will be only as successful as you are in collecting the loans you’ve already made.” Wise man.

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