The nation’s fast-darkening circumstances define the essential dilemma of Barack Obama’s presidency. His instinct is to govern by consensus, in the moderate middle ground of politics. Yet dire events are pushing the new president toward solutions more fundamental than those he had intended. The longer he resists taking more forceful action, the more likely it is that he will be overwhelmed by the gathering adversities.
Three large obstacles are blocking Obama’s path. The first is one of scale: his nearly $800 billion recovery package sounds huge, but it is perhaps two or three times too small to produce a turnaround. The second is that the financial system–still dysfunctional despite the bailouts–requires much more than fiscal stimulus and bailout: the government must nationalize and supervise the banks to ensure that they carry out the lending and investing needed for recovery. This means liquidating some famous nameplates–led by Citigroup–that are spiraling toward insolvency. The third is that the crisis is global: the US economy cannot return to normal unless the unbalanced world trading system is simultaneously reformed. Globalization has vastly undermined US productive strength, as trade deficits have led the nation into deepening debtor dependence.
While Washington debates the terms of Obama’s stimulus package, others see disappointment ahead. The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, an outpost of Keynesian thinking, expresses its doubts in emotional language that professional economists seldom use. “The prospects for the US economy have become uniquely dreadful, if not frightening,” Levy analysts reported. The institute’s updated strategic analysis warns that the magnitude of negative forces–the virtual collapse of bank lending, private spending, consumer incomes and demand–“will make it impossible for US authorities to apply a fiscal and monetary stimulus large enough to return output and unemployment to tolerable levels within the next two years.” Instead, the unemployment rate is likely to rise to 10 percent by 2010. Obama’s package amounts only to around 3 percent, annually, of GDP in a $13 trillion economy. Levy’s analysis calculates that it would require federal deficits of 8 to 10 percent of GDP–$2 trillion or more–to reverse the economic contraction. And yet, the institute observed, it is inconceivable that this level “could be tolerated for purely political reasons” or that the United States could sustain the rising indebtedness without terrifying our leading creditors, like China.
Stimulus alone by a single nation will not work, in other words, given the distorted economic system that Obama has inherited. The stern warning from the Levy analysts and other skeptical experts is that the United States has no choice but to undertake deeper systemic reforms right now, rather than wait for recovery. Will Obama have the nerve to tackle these fundamentals? To do so he would have to abandon some orthodox assumptions about free trade and private finance that he shares with his economic advisers.
The most obvious and immediate obstacle to systemic change is the dysfunctional financial system. It remains inert and hunkered down in self-protection, despite the vast billions in public money distributed so freely, no strings attached, in the last days of the Bush administration. We will learn soon enough whether Obama intends to start over with a more forceful approach. Obama and his advisers are eager to get another $350 billion in bailout funds, but they have remained silent on whether this will finance a government takeover of the system. Without such a move, the taxpayers will essentially be financing the slow death of failed institutions while getting nothing in return.
The most complex barrier to recovery is globalization and its negative impact on the economy. Given our grossly unbalanced trade, we have kept the system going by playing buyer of last resort–absorbing mountainous trade deficits and accumulating more than $5 trillion in capital debt to pay for swollen imports, while our domestic economy steadily loses jobs and production to other nations. Renewed consumer demand at home will automatically “leak” to rival economies and trading partners by boosting their exports to the US market–which subtracts directly from our GDP. This is the trap the lopsided trading system has created for recovery plans, and it cannot be escaped without fundamental reform.
To put it crudely, Obama’s stimulus program might restart factories in China while leaving US unemployment painfully high. In fact, some leakage may occur via the very banks or industrial corporations that taxpayers have generously assisted. What prevents Citigroup and General Motors from using their fresh capital to enhance overseas operations rather than investing at home? The new administration will therefore have to rethink the terms of globalization before its domestic initiatives can succeed.
A global recovery compact would require extremely difficult diplomacy but could be possible because it is in everyone’s self-interest. The United States could propose the outlines with one crucial condition: if the trading partners are unwilling to act jointly, Washington will have to proceed unilaterally. A grand bargain could start with US agreement to serve once again as the main engine that pulls the global economy out of the ditch. That is, the United States will have to continue as the buyer of last resort for the next few years, and China and other nations will have to bail us out with still more lending. In the short run, this would dig us into a deeper hole, but the United States could insist on a genuinely reformed system and mutually agreed return to balanced trade, once global recovery is under way.
Congress can enact the terms now–a ceiling on US trade deficits that will decline steadily to tolerable levels, as well as new rules for US multinational enterprises that redefine their obligations to the home economy. Unlike in other advanced nations, US companies get a free ride from their home government when they relocate production abroad. That has to change if the United States is to reverse its weakening world position. Tax penalties plus national economic policy can drive US multinationals to keep more of their value-added production at home. These measures can be enforced through the tax code and, if necessary, a general tariff that puts a cap on imports. Formulating these provisions now for application later, once the worst of the crisis is over, would give every player the time to adjust investment strategies gradually.
President Obama and his team may at first scorn the notion of saving the world while negotiating a bailout for the United States. They will be reluctant to talk about reforming the global system by threatening to invoke emergency tariffs. But we are in uncharted waters. Impossible ideas abruptly begin to seem plausible. Six months from now, if the Obama recovery does not materialize, the president may discover he has to reinvent himself.