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Too Big Not to Fail? | The Nation

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Too Big Not to Fail?

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This is the second in a three-part series on the economic crisis.

About the Author

James S. Henry
James S. Henry is an economist, lawyer and investigative journalist, and former chief economist at McKinsey & Co....

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There is much less to Obama's stimulus plan than meets the eye. What's he going to do about it?

The US economy rewarded the finance industry at the expense of our most creative problem-solvers. We need an innovation revival to grow our way back to health.

Even if a global economic recovery still eludes us, has President Obama's new team already achieved a stunning turnaround in US economic policy? Or has the administration just been fighting the last war, paying far too much attention to ancient history, special interests and political correctness in its programs to stimulate the economy, fix the banks and providing debt relief to homeowners?

For lifelong students of the Great Depression like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers, it probably seems that Obama's economics team is right on track. In less than a month, Obama has pushed his record $787 billion stimulus bill through a highly partisan Congress. The resulting projected federal deficits will be even larger as a share of of national income than those incurred under FDR, until World War II. At a time when unemployment is rising sharply, this should be good news for the economy--if the plan really is expected to be stimulating.

On February 10, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced a bold, if somewhat imprecise, $2.5 trillion program to relieve US banks of dodgy assets once and for all. Combined with trillions in other loans and guarantees from the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve, this is designed to avoid another costly Great Depression-type error, in which scores of banks were allowed to fail and credit markets seized up. If the plan really is expected to work, that should also be good news for the economy.

Bernanke also concluded from his lengthy studies of the Great Depression that the Federal Reserve had blown it way back then by keeping monetary policy too tight. So ever since last summer he's made the US money supply as loose as loose can be, ballooning the Fed's balance sheet to nearly $1 trillion and driving real interest rates down to zero, while pressuring his counterparts in Europe and Japan to folllow suit.

Obama's team also has emphasized the importance of avoiding the beggar-thy-neighbor "protectionism" of the 1930s--aside from a little "Buy American" language in the stimulus bill and a few remarks from Geithner about China. If loose monetary policy and tighter lips are sufficient for recovery, it should be just around the corner.

Finally, in the course of Obama's drive to pass the stimulus, he traveled to troubled communities in Indiana, Florida and Arizona and heard first-hand that millions of American homeowners and small businesses could use a little financial aid of their own right now. So Obama has committed $275 billion of the remaining TARP/"Financial Stability" funds to this purpose. In principle, this should also be good news for the economy--if we really believe that the plan has what it takes to stem the galloping pace of foreclosures and bankruptcies.

Obama and his team may really believe that their first month in office compares favorably with FDR's in 1933. Historical pitfalls have been avoided, and there has been no shortage of good intentions, optimism and action. The new president has also assembled a team that includes, by its own admission, the nation's brightest economists and its most experienced veterans of the Fed and the Treasury.

But something seems to be missing. During FDR's first few months in office, and well into his second term, he received an overwhelmingly positive response not only from the public at large but also from the stock market, despite the fact that FDR and Wall Street generally detested each other.

In contrast, the reaction of global stock markets and market analysts to Obama's flurry of policy initiatives has been overwhelmingly negative. In the past week alone, since the passage of the stimulus, the announcement of the Geithner plan and the president's new plan for mortgage relief, the stock market has declined more than 10 percent. Indeed, the country's largest banks and auto companies, which were supposed to be the beneficiaries of much of these new programs, are on the brink of bankruptcy.

So what's the problem? Actually there are several problems. The first, as I noted in part one of this series, "The Pseudo Stimulus," there really is much less to Obama's stimulus than meets the eye and far less than will be needed to head off the dramatic increase in unemployment that is fast approaching.

For reasons of political convenience and a desire to move quickly, Obama and his advisors decided to appease a handful of key Republican senators, rather than seize the bully pulpit and rally support around a larger, more direct spending package with more debt relief for homeowners.

Ultimately Obama succeeded in getting just three "moderate" Republican senators and zero House Republicans to support the package. (Eleven House Democrats also voted against it.) These votes were costly. The final bill ended up slashing almost $40 billion from the package, while boosting the share of tax cuts to nearly 40 percent--including almost half of all relief provided in the critical first year when it is essential to get the downturn under control.

Most macroeconomists still believe that under conditions of excess capacity, tax cuts generate much less employment per dollar of lost revenue than almost any kind of spending, because upper-income types will save the proceeds or use them to pay down debts. Furthermore, many of the tax cuts in Obama's bill are regressive, even allowing for his favorites, "Make Work Pay," the earned income credit and child care credit. This means their impact on jobs will be even more limited.

For example, of $214 billion of individual tax cuts in the first two years, $100 billion will go to the top 20 percent, while the bottom 60 percent gets $81 billion. Indeed, for one of the largest single tax cuts in the bill, the $70 billion reduction in the "alternative minimum tax," 70 percent will go to the top 10 percent, while the bottom 60 percent--including most unemployed workers--get .5 percent. So Obama's vaunted plan relies on this premier-class AMT cut, plus another $100 billion of business tax breaks, for 27 percent of its first two years of "stimulus."

On top of this, Republicans like Arlen Specter also have shown that they give no ground to Democrats when it comes to sausage-making. I won't repeat part one's list of trinkets, except to note that almost all the worst projects survived, and indeed were only enhanced by the solons' scrutiny.

As a former Minnesotan I'm all in favor of free WiFi for each and every one of the nation's two million farmers; I've also recently written here in glowing terms about the merits of government- sponsored research and development and "green housing." But this kind of spending has little to do with putting millions of unemployed people--most of whom are in urban areas--back to work.

All told, at least $200 billion of this stimulus spending, on top of the $200 billion of wasteful tax cuts, is not remotely related to the urgent goal of creating as many jobs as possible in the next twelve to eighteen months. The cause of recovery was hijacked by a weird coalition of environmentalists, energy companies, venture capitalists, public-sector unions, state governors, tax-cut nuts and other special interests.

The stimulus program was supposed to realize Obama's declared goal of saving or creating at least 4 million new jobs by 2012--even then, at the average cost of $200,000 per job. According to the Congressional Budget Office, even that level of job creation would only reduce the US unemployment rate by an average of less than one percentage point a year by 2012, for a cumulative reduction of 2.5 to 3 percent relative to the CBO's projections of what unemployment will look like without the program.

By the time the Senate got through with it, Obama's stimulus became much weaker. So most economists now agree that it will be lucky to create or save even an extra 2.5 million jobs by 2012--about a 1.5 to 2 percentage-point cumulative reduction in the official unemployment rate by 2012, at an average cost to taxpayers of $315,000 per job.

The contrast with FDR's focus on spending programs, which really did put people back to work, is stunning.

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