First of a three-part series on the economic crisis.

You, telling me the things you’re gonna do for me.
I ain’t blind and I don’t like what I think I see.

   –Michael McDonald, The Doobie Brothers,
    “Takin’ It To the Streets”

For what is the crime of robbing a bank, compared with the crime of owning one?   –Berthold Brecht

So now that President Obama is in office, his economic team is in place, the largest stimulus package in US history is nearly complete, real interest rates are negative and the Treasury is about to announce a “big bang” version of TARP that provides even more capital to private banks, we’re good, right?

Lo siento, no, as shown by last week’s steep stock market slide, even after his program passed the House. For once, the Republican wingnuts may be right. There really is much less to Obama’s stimulus than meets the eye.

His new plan for ridding the banks of toxic assets–“cash for trash,” as economist Joseph Stiglitz has aptly described it–is also likely to be way too kind to bank executives and shareholders, and he appears to be remarkably ignorant about the indisputable successes that capitalist countries like Norway, Chile, and Japan have had with temporary, partial bank nationalizations that make the taxpayers “owners of last resort.”

There has been far too little debt relief provided to the growing number of homeowners facing foreclosure, small business owners facing bankruptcy, and other debtors. This step is urgently needed to stem the free fall in housing prices and the rising tide of layoffs among small businesses, where most of the country’s jobs are.

There are rumors afloat that Obama’s team may soon announce something like this, but the numbers that we’ve heard from key Congressmen–$50 billion to $100 billion–are far too modest. We need to pressure the president for a “People’s TARP,” no less generous than the ones that the banks are receiving.

Finally, while US policymakers have been throwing gargantuan sums of borrowed money at the wall, mollycoddling Wall Street, and dithering on debt relief for the rest of us, the global crisis has deepened. All across Europe and Asia–from Athens, Chongqging, London, Moscow, Paris and Prague, to Rekyavik, Riga, Seoul, Sofia and Vilnius–people have become completely fed up with their governments and are taking it to the streets.

So here’s a message for our new president, from someone who worked hard for his election long before it was fashionable: if you dally and temporize, the very same thing could easily happen here–perhaps just in the form of a massive tax strike, in solidarity with Messrs. Geithner and Daschle.

While Americans are usually much less militant and certainly less well organized than our comrades around the world, the serious deficiencies in the first drafts that we’ve seen of Obama’s stimulus and financial plans really do need to be corrected in short order.

We also need to see much tougher action with the financial services industry, which bears a disproportionate share of the responsibility for this nightmare. At a minimum, this means a return to a more orthodox and tightly regulated banking system, a renewed assault on tax havens and the anarchy of the world’s financial order, strict limits on executive pay plans that reward unbalanced risk-taking, and a 1930s Pecora Commission-style investigation of the industry’s misbehavior–complete with subpoena power.

In the words of FDR’s first inaugural address in March 1933–which, by the way, was harder-hitting and much more memorable than Obama’s–it is time for the “money changers” to be forced to flee from “their high seats in the temple of our civilization” once and for all. The only thing we have to fear is Obama’s temerity.


By now everyone has had just about enough bad economic news, but just to set the stage for the discussion, it is important to review the basics.

It’s is already a cliché to describe this crisis as “the deepest global downturn since the Great Depression.” Actually in many ways it threatens to become even worse–faster, sharper and far more global. Here at home there are already more than 11.1 million unemployed, close to the 11.4 million peak that was reached in 1933, when 20 percent of the population still lived on farms and, apart from the Dust Bowl and bank repossesions, could at least count on having a place to grow their own food. In 2008 alone there were already 2.3 million residential foreclosures filed and 861,664 completed in the US, compared with the 600,000 total that was recorded from 1930 to 33. Obviously, relative to the size and wealth of the economy, conditions were worse back then, partly because the social welfare system provided less help and more bank depositors got wiped out. But in absolute terms the sheer number of our fellow citizens who are already experiencing serious hardship is really disturbing. And we are only a few months into this.

Since October, growth rates have plummeted and unemployment has soared worldwide. Just last week, the International Monetary Fund cut its latest forecast for world growth in 2009 to .5 percent, and for the United States to negative 1.6 percent, as fourth-quarter US growth plunged by over 5 percent, apart from inventory accumulation. Other credible observers are far more gloomy.

Each day brings news of massive layoffs, corporate losses, foreclosures, the bankruptcies of well-known brands like Waterford Wedgwood and Circuit City, continuing house price declines, bank failures, abandoned projects, soaring government deficits and bailouts and widening spreads on loans to some First World countries, not to mention financial frauds, robberies, suicides and other indexes of deep financial distress.

This is the world’s first post-globalization debt crisis, and the worldwide effects are catastrophic. From Labuan, Jakarta and Guangdong to Chicago and Detroit, London and Moscow, the ranks of the unemployed are expected to swell by 51 million by mid-2009, and of those living in dire poverty by at least 176 million. Beyond impersonal statistics, there are also innumerable tragic stories of personal hardship, involving people and families that have suddenly lost jobs, careers, businesses, homes, life savings, healthcare, scholarships and, most important, hope for the future.


Given this situation, the US economy’s influence on the global situation, and the importance of resetting expectations, the stakes for Obama’s very first economic initiatives are enormous. Unfortunately, the first drafts already adopted by the House and under debate in the Senate are disappointing.

Surely, at these prices we deserved a much more carefully targeted anti-Depression program. Instead, over 63 percent of Obama’s $825 billion-plus in new spending and tax cuts won’t even be felt for at least a year, and more than $100 billion won’t show up until 2012 or beyond. Even if the plan works as advertised, it would only reduce unemployment by less than one percentage point a year, relative to the more than 9 percent baseline projection we are facing.

But this plan will almost certainly not work as advertised. It has been weighed down with $275 billion in tax cuts that would have very modest short-term multipliers. At least 21 percent to 25 percent of Obama’s tax credits would go to recipients in the top 20 percent, with incomes above $113,000. These folks are more likely to save the money than those with lower incomes–and right how what we need is spending, not saving.

Evidently these tax cuts were included out of some broad-minded attempt to reach out to Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats. One might have thought they were already sated by a decade of record tax cuts for upper-income groups, starting with Bill Clinton’s sharp reduction of capital gains taxes in 1997–even larger, by the way, than George W. Bush’s. But Obama’s diplomatic gesture yielded not a single Republican vote in the House last week, and also failed to win over eleven Democrats. Welcome back to Earth, Mr. President.

Even Obama’s $550 billion of extra spending will not be sufficiently stimulative. First, around $200 billion will be channeled through state aid. On average, this will have an even lower multiplier than tax cuts, because of bureaucratic delays and the fact that our political system always channels a disproportionate share of aid to less-needy states. At one end of the spectrum, six states with unemployment rates above 9 percent now account for about one-fourth of the nation’s unemployment–2.8 million people. Under Obama’s program these states would get less than 20 percent of all this state-channeled aid, an average of $8,623 per jobless person. But ten mainly Western states with unemployment rates below 5 percent will get nearly $20,000 per unemployed person.

Second, despite the sales rhetoric about promoting recovery and saving jobs, these were clearly not the plan’s only–or even its most important–objectives. If they had been, there’d be far more up-front spending on direct job creation and programs with higher multipliers and faster paybacks, like unemployment benefits and populist debt relief. There’d also be more top-down control.

Instead what we have is a dog’s breakfast of pet projects, spread across 104 federal agencies, from the Administration on Aging and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to Fish and Wildlife and the National Endowment for the Arts. Dozens of projects were evidently extracted from various liberal wish lists, dusted off and dressed up in the latest “recovery-jobs” couture. Almost anything can qualify so long as it carries a big enough price tag: digital TV conversion ($640 million, on top of the $1.3 billion already spent for this worthy cause), port security ($600 million), research on biomass and geothermal ($1.2 billion), constructing the “smart grid” ($4.4 billion), climate science ($390 million), fixing Amtrak ($800 million), developing satellites ($460 million), restoring wildlife habitats ($400 million), preserving forest health ($850 million), special education ($13.3 billion), immunization ($954 million), STD prevention ($350 million), water projects ($13.7 billion), preparing for a flu pandemic ($620 million), grants to local police ($4 billion), advanced batteries ($2 billion), wireless broadband ($6 billion), a new data center for Social Security ($400 million)…

The overall impression is a parody of bloviated corporate liberalism. It is as if every deep-sea creature in the ocean suddenly came to the surface at the same time. There they all are, writhing and waiting for someone to make sense of the overall game plan.

Road and bridge repair be damned! Why worry about being unemployed when there’s so much else to do? Soon we’ll all be firing up the clean-coal stoves and sewage-fired generators, recharging our federally subsidized Volts and the underground battery farms and heading on over to new neighborhood health centers, where we’ll download some interactive broadband training on aging and avoiding STDs. Then perhaps we’ll plant a tree or apply for grants to “weatherize” or found a “rural enterprise.” By then it will be time to pick up Little Dorothy at Early Head Start, get her vaccinated, say hey to the new federally funded “local” police chief, artists and high school teachers, then kick back in front of the converter box with a long cool draught of federal H2O and a generous helping of nutritious cuisine from the “local” Emergency Food store–making sure that the CO2 that we generate is properly sequestered and not bubbling up through the neighbor’s brand new geothermal system.

By the laws of probability, of course, at least a few of these schemes may actually turn out to have some merit. But it is clear that Washington’s finest lobbyists and law firms–second only to Wall Street in terms of sheer venality–have already been hard at work to insure that no key client has been left behind: electric utilities, the coal industry, telecoms, agribusiness, the IT industry, the teachers unions, the Asphalt Pavement Alliance, the Portland Cement Association (“we pour strength into our recovery”), commercial real estate developers and even venture capitalists, are all lined up to profit from Obama’s extraordinary spending spree.

I’m beginning to sound like a Republican wingnut. But really, at lightning speed, we’ve gone from booting single mothers off the dole in the interests of “personal responsibility” (saving a grand total of–what, Bill Clinton?–maybe $5 billion per year at most, while finding jobs for only half of the 60 percent who got the boot) to having almost every single key interest group in the country lining up with a tin cup, right behind the banks.

More important, from a global perspective, Obama’s program takes the eye of the ball. What the world economy desperately needs most right now from the US economy–remember, we’re the ones who originated this debacle–is not “reinvention,” or some hastily-assembled collection of alternative energy demonstration projects, but a good, old-fashioned healthy US market recovery.

Once that is in place, there will be plenty of time and money to save the planet. But unless that is in place, there will be no serious worldwide attention paid to climate change, global warming or alternative energy, nor will there be necessary funds and economic incentives that are required to really fix the the problem. At a time when tens of millions are having a hard time feeding their families, these are luxury goods. I defer to no one in my hardcore environmentalism–but Obama’s plan has had a little bit too much input from Al Gore’s “green limousine” set, and is putting the green cart before the debt-ridden horse

In fact, this program somehow manages to be neither reinvention nor recovery. Nor is it very thoughtful. Rather, it is a Jackson Pollack approach to social and economic policy. That kind of action painting may have been OK for hip Hamptons artists way back in the 1950s, but in these times it is dangerously blithe. It also risks discrediting everything that progressives should stand for, if we want to see government taken seriously again as an agent of social change. If we continue with this scattershot, favorite-liberal-interest-group approach, creditors like China may soon begin to wonder whether we’ve become just another Banana Republic–not the chain store, but the political pathology–or an aging superpower that has an acute case of ADHD.

Of course it is easy to criticize. The real test is to come up with a superior, politically feasible alternative. Later on in this series, I’ll suggest one–a combination of high-multiplier spending and serious popular debt relief that would command more support, provide a much greater direct stimulus, stem the decline in housing prices and small business closings and placate foreign creditors who are worried about our sanity. It might even permit Obama to finally win a few Republican votes for his program.