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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Scary Thought on Labor Day Weekend: Obama's Economic Team Think They Are Doing a Good Job

Scary Thought on Labor Day Weekend: Obama's Economic Team Think They Are Doing a Good Job

Saturday, 31 August 2013 07:41

Ezra Klein gives us some terrifying news in a Bloomberg column today. President Obama's economic team think they are doing a great job, hence the desire to bring back former teammate Larry Summers as Fed chair. This is terrifying because the economy this Labor Day is described by a set of statistics that can only be described as horrible.

We are almost 9 million jobs below the trend level of employment. The number of people involuntarily working part-time is still up by almost 4 million from its pre-recession level. Wages have been stagnant for a decade and show no signs of increasing any time soon. And, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the economy is still operating more than $1 trillion (6 percent) below its potential. Oh, and by the way, the financial sector is more concentrated than ever, with top honchos drawing the same sort of paychecks they did before the crisis.

I could go on but what's the point? This is an economy that under other circumstances we would all say is awful. The Obama team can pat themselves on the back for saying its better than a second Great Depression, but that's a bit like saying that the 1962 Mets didn't lose all their games. Horrible is horrible.

The best that can be said is that the crew has been ineffectual in the face of Republican opposition in building any sort of political support for a stronger economic agenda. But ineffectual is not a much better recommendation than incompetent.

And it's hard to blame items like the "pivot to deficit reduction" on the Republicans. If the Obama team has an aggressive plan for turning the economy around that is being stifled by the nasty Republicans they have not done a very good job of even making it known, must less rallying support.

I suppose if they think everything in the economy is just great that would explain why they want Larry Summers back. That's pretty bad news on Labor Day.

There is one item in Ezra's piece that deserves special attention. He tells us that:

"Larry Summers isn’t just the favorite for Federal Reserve chairman. He’s the overwhelming favorite."

The inside tip to Ezra is not breaking news, it is part of the Obama administration's effort to diffuse opposition to Summers. Hey, what's the point in opposing somthing that has already happened?

Summers will be Obama's pick when Obama announces that he is his pick. Until then everything we read in the paper is political maneuvering. As the old saying goes, it's not over until the fat man is officially named.


Comments (22)Add Comment
Sad but true
written by Robert Salzberg, August 31, 2013 8:16
I'm guessing the "vetting" of Summers will mostly consist of counting votes in the Senate. If the numbers are good, Summers gets picked. The only hope is that enough Senators say they will fight his nomination and President Obama doesn't want the fight.

written by Chris E., August 31, 2013 9:03
If the economy continues this way, potential gdp could deteriorate given long-term unemployment and the persistent output gap. i think that's what I'm most afraid of: that we'll see a breakdown in capital stock like in the UK.

Also, I really hope, despite efforts by Obama officials to squash opposition, that Obama will give up on Larry the Liquidator and go with the right (but still not optimal) choice of Janet Yellen.

And given how Obama has butchered the meaning of "hope", I see my previous comment as a foreshadowing of what will unfortunately likely occur.
written by A Populist, August 31, 2013 9:54
From the beginning, Obama felt the need to seek approval from the heads of the social set in DC - those already holding all the power and wealth. He really doesn't seem to have many strong, longstanding economic principles of his own, and those that he does have, are imprinted from his bonding with those around him - bankers all.

Everyone around Obama agrees that Larry Summers is a great choice, because anyone with dissenting opinions is gone.

Aging bureaucratic structures, thrive by refusing to admit any mistake. Completely obvious and egregious mistakes are denied, ignored, and perpetuated, rather than allow any disrespect to be shown to the powerful. This dynamic is not limited to government, and should be obvious to anyone over a certain age.

High Unemployment? Prosperity is just around the corner.

Things are bad? If we had done anything different at all, they would certainly have been worse! And, by the way, things are really not that bad!

If one were to suddenly raise the minimum wage and do some big stimulus - and a great recovery were to occur? That would prove that this high unemployment was all unnecessary. Can't have that.

And if a new Fed chair were to successfully call for exposing the derivatives and securitization mess - a *lot* of powerful and wealthy people would look really bad. It will take much more than a few complaints by a couple columnists and commenters on websites to get that cesspool cleaned up.

I am not very encouraged. I was starting to become encouraged by the open discussion about the potential appointment of Summers on NYTimes articles and comment sections. But then, I see overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton as the next Democratic Presidential nominee - on these same comment sections. Does anyone really believe Hillary Clinton would make a pick substantially different than Summers? If Hillary, Obama, and any other pol correctly calculates that appeasing their plutocratic supporters will not cost them voter support, should we really expect them to care what we write on blogs and comments?

I am not arguing that we should make any potential appointment of Summers any less embarrassing, painful, and damaging. If Obama is still in favor of Summers, he is probably unaware of Summers' complete legacy, and has not been reading these public criticisms. And, the more awareness we raise about these corrupt plutocrats in both parties, the greater the likelihood of real change.

But I find it hard to reconcile party loyalty to plutocrats, with the desire for actual change. And it is this blind partisan loyalty among Democrats, which has me most pessimistic.
English 101, Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Allan L., August 31, 2013 11:11
Obama's economic team doesn't think.
written by medgeek, August 31, 2013 11:20
I agree with what you've said, and I much prefer Janet Yellen for Fed chair. My only quibble is that Larry has lost some weight...
written by Last Mover, August 31, 2013 11:39

Wait for it. When Summers is announced Obama will say it again ... We've been through tough economic times. We've been through a lot together. We faced these times with the will and courage to overcome them. We have made progress, but we are not done. We have much more to do, much further to go. Our potential is endless and together we will reach it ...

... and as we approach our potential economic output with Larry Summers at the helm ... neither will we allow ourselves to come anywhere near the possibility of the slightest sign of any inflation whatsoever, which together as an unemployed nation we will conquer with your help to stay the course ...
written by zoniedude, August 31, 2013 11:55
I say cut a deal with the Republicans to impeach Obama. President Biden would be awesome.
written by Fred Brack, August 31, 2013 4:30

No economist or econ-blogger surpasses you, Dr. Baker, in rigorous data-driven analysis. You perform superbly in your technocratic and public-informing roles and are convincing and compelling.

Thus, it is disappointing to see you succumb to Green Lanternism with this paragraph:

"The best that can be said is that the crew has been ineffectual in the face of Republican opposition in building any sort of political support for a stronger economic agenda. But ineffectual is not a much better recommendation than incompetent."

Now it's not your job to analyze constitutional, congressional, and partisan politics. But simply ignoring those political realities, by emitting a technocratic snort ("ineffectual"), is akin to those who ignore the data that delineate economic realities -- people who you so justly, and sarcastically, scorn daily in your indispensable blog.

Even before entering the political thickets, we know a fundamental fact: the rate of decline in the economy in 2008/Q4 was roughly 2.5 times greater than was estimated at the time the Obama team was putting together its stimulus proposal (note that word "proposal" -- a president is not a king).

Plunging into the political thickets, we now know what the Obama team knew then: (a) Democratic congressional leaders told the White House they could not wrangle majority votes if the proposed stimulus bill went anywhere near the T-word ("trillion"); (b) at minimum, three Republican votes and one conservative Independent vote (Lieberman) would be needed to assure passage around a Senate Republican filibuster, and that would mean altering the Democrats' desired mix of tax cuts and spending in the bill. Also, we now know (c) the backlash against the three Republicans who voted for the stimulus bill ensured that no Republican would ever again vote for any Keynesian-type stimulus bill, at least if Democrats proposed it and the Kenyan usurper supported it; (d) "stimulus" is now a four-letter word in English (five letters in French); (e) the Obama Administration's pivot to debt reduction was at least in part an acknowledgement that Green Lanternism is fantasy, indulged by pundits in their lint-free laboratories of hypothesis.

Looking at (e) a little deeper: We know that few Americans are economists. Even fewer are macroeconomists. And even fewer are Keynesian macroeconomists. To the extent that people even think about economics it is within the framework of household economics. Within that framework, the idea that a household deeply in debt should go even deeper in debt is nuts. Republicans (and European politicians) exploited that "common sense," rightly judging such concepts as "liquidity trap," "zero-lower-bound," and so on would be perceived as gibberish by voters – as well as by not a few highly decorated economists! Debt fear-mongering (fear being the most powerful emotion among all surviving animal species -- without fear there's no survival) gripped the North Atlantic region.

Green Lanternism posits that Obama could stand before this tide of fear and push it back to within the floodgates that Republicans had opened wide – even as numerous congressional Democrats (legislative votes!) were now swimming with the tide. Experienced politicians were saying the best that could be hoped for was to channel the tide ("I share your . . . ah, fear") so as to eventually make political room for more stimulus. Was that a faulty tactic? Perhaps so. But what was the alternative? Green Lanternism?

In any event, the tide of fear swept through the 2010 elections, and all possibilities from a Keynesian perspective were foreclosed. (Remember the fate of the American Jobs Act?)

You're frustrated, Dr. Baker. I understand that. But, geez, you haven't even been able to convince NPR, The NYTimes, and (especially) The WaPo to stop debt fear mongering. I don't blame you for being ineffectual. I place the blame where it belongs, with those news outlets.

Similarily, I don't blame the Obama Administration for economic policies inadequate for the times – or at least solely to blame. Primarily, I blame Republicans and The Fed.
Club FEDer, ret.
written by Bruce, August 31, 2013 5:56
Don't Get DEFUSED, maintain the Potential Energy for Kinetic EXPLOSION! Luck Farry and DingleBarry!
One shouldn't give Obama a pass because the Repubs made it difficult
written by John Wright, August 31, 2013 5:59
Obama had a major opportunity to actually do financial reform as the public was angry and more than ready for reform.

Perhaps, to be charitable, Obama may have been influenced by Geithner/Summers to believe that more than token financial reform damages the USA economy.

I believe the Obama administration's political/economic decision to avoid serious financial reform and pursue more than a small number of financial prosecutions will be eventually viewed as "the" missed economic opportunity to restructure the American economy away from parasitic casino capitalism.

This could have been a major economic restructuring that would pay long term benefits as the finance portion of the USA economy declined in significance.

It would also have influenced the global financial industry positively.

But Obama didn't seem to put any effort, or select people who were interested, in the financial reform task.

And those people that proved effective, such as Gary Gensler, were marginalized by the Obama administration to pacify Wall Street.

Defending his legacy might be an amusing task for Obama in his comfortable retirement.

if Obama ignores economics then he has let the country down hugely
written by Dean, August 31, 2013 9:27

A prolonged period of high unemployment is not a small problem like a house that could use a new paint job. This is having a devastating impact on the lives of tens of millions of people. Obama's economic team should be spending every waking hour thinking of how they can make headway.

It is not acceptable just to point to the Republican bad guys and say they won't let us do anything. They have to be thinking of ways to get around them. If they have been doing this it is hard to see. On work sharing, as issue that I have done work (with some success), Obama could not even be bothered to highlight the provision that he signed into law that subsidies the program.

This is not an enviable record.
DEFUSE, not "diffuse"
written by Shlumphy, September 01, 2013 11:48
It's "defuse," not "diffuse."

Defuse = deactivate.
Diffuse = spread.

Otherwise, a great post.
written by Fred Brack, September 01, 2013 2:59
Dr. Baker,

I certainly didn't expect you to change your attitude as a result of my comment. I just wanted to register my mild objection to your post's black/white portrait.

In your response to my comment, allow me to say -- with deepest respect! -- that you simply assume that the Obama economic team is not "spending every waking hour thinking of how they can make headway" against the mass-unemployment crisis. Perhaps the team actually is doing this but finds itself to be less of an irresistible force up against an immovable object.

You cite work-sharing. And, noting Germany's success with this tactic, you have made a thoroughly convincing case for it. But the U.S. is not Germany, where a long-established alliance among industry, unions, and government exists, as well as a public consensus, including all significant political parties, strongly supports that alliance. I don't know why "Obama could not even be bothered to highlight the provision that he signed into law that subsidies the [work-sharing] program," and I certainly don't want to try justifying his neglect, even while being skeptical that in the U.S., and at this stage of the business cycle, work-sharing would have a significant effect Nor do I think, as I made plain in my earlier comment, that history will judge the Obama Administration blameless in the over-all government (executive, legislative, central bank) failure to adequately the Great Recession.

I just think that your frustration has led you into Green Lanternism. Your example of the lack of administration attention to work-sharing actually, I would argue, is an example of Green Lanternism.

In short (though it's too late for that!), my view is that "ineffectual" should be applied to the entire government, with congressional Republicans singled out for special blame, and The Fed next in line, if not equal in malfeasance. (The Fed sets an inflation "target," repeatedly fails to achieve it, and then continues the same policies? Talk about ineffectual!)
The Green Lantern
written by A Populist, September 01, 2013 6:15

Apparently, any criticism of President Obama's political savvy in achieving economic gains for the masses, is - by definition - "Green Lanternism".

Fine - then I believe in the Green Lantern.

The President of the United States is an incredibly powerful post.

In all times (but particularly in times of crisis), the bully pulpit can be wielded as a carrot and stick, to inform and sway public opinion, and give voice and power to that public opinion.

Any time the President uses controversial rhetoric, it will reverberate louder and longer, than words spoken by any other human being on the planet. The more controversial, the clearer and stronger that message will be transmitted through world media.

Deregulation and Wall Street's casino games, had turned our financial system into a corrupt mess. If one were purposely designing a system to enable corruption and profiteering, while giving banks the apparent ability to hold the world economy hostage, it would look exactly like what we now have. For years, one person at the center of creating and maintaining this mess, was Larry Summers.

If Obama had a mandate for anything, it was to expose and clean up that mess. Obama had the power to make LTCM, Brooksley Born, Larry Summers, and AIG, into front page news, and household names.

The threat of exposing the rich and powerful people at the center of this mess - combined with the overwhelming public desire for honesty - gave Obama immense power to reform. He was in position to give the bankers a choice between exposure, embarrassment, loss of position, financial losses, and possibly jail, on the one hand, and various measures of leniency on the other. That is tremendous power, which could have been used to ensure return of real regulation to Wall Street - and bolstered his popularity, power, and likely help in the midterms.

Instead, he chose to give power to those who caused the mess, and allow them to sweep it all under the rug.

Then, he pivoted to health care, and the bully pulpit was largely under-used. When it was used, it was often to slap down his "critics on the left". He could have bolstered the legitimacy of "the left", and thus made them a more useful foil (making himself look centrist / less liberal by comparison). Instead, he attacked and marginalized them, thus moving the perceived "center" ever further rightward. Thus an economist such as Dean, is perceived as the "left fringe", instead of what he really represents - a clear voice of economic reason - albeit a counterweight to those economists shilling for the wealthy.

The true "Green Lanternism", is the belief that the President can effect any significant change, without standing up to those powerful entities who currently have things their own way.
Work sharing was passed and no one knows about it
written by Dean, September 01, 2013 9:02

you're making my point. There was a provision attached to the 2012 bill that extended the payroll tax cut that has the federal government picking up the tab for state work sharing programs through 2014. These programs are part of state unemployment insurance in 25 states, including CA and NY.

The pickup on this is close to zero because no one knows about it -- apparently not even you. This is because Obama has done zero to publicize it. He is not being stopped by republicans, apparently he doesn't give a damn.

In terms of its potential impact, every month close to 2 million people lose their job involuntarily (fired to laid off). If we could save just 3 percent of these jobs through work sharing that would imply more than 700,000 jobs over the course of a year. This would increase the rate of job creation by more than 40 percent.

This is a simple and virtually costless measure, but the Obama economic team can't be bothered.
written by Fred Brack, September 02, 2013 1:50
Dr. Baker,

Stubbornness backed by data and bluntness backed by data are just two of your qualities that would cause me, if I were president, to name you to lead my economic team -- though I'd have Jared Bernstein waiting in the wings to take over when you had managed to tick off everyone else in my administration and not a few congressional Democrats who I needed to get any significant stuff done on the fiscal front.

Allow me to try -- try! -- making these points:

1. I know, or should know, better than disagreeing, even in a minor way, with someone who knows so very much more than I do in any particular subject. (I know newspapering, baseball, pro basketball, and . . . well, that's it, a list that doesn't include macroeconomics or labor economics.)

2. I know no one, even other economists, should risk disagreeing, even in a minor way, with you unless they are recklessly brave.

3. I do know about the Shared-Work Program. My state (Washington) started one even before Congress acted.

4. I'm shocked that you of all economists are apparently -- apparently! -- manipulating data to make a point. Twenty-five states, you say (and I have no reason to doubt you), have work-sharing programs. Since those states include, as you point out, NY and CA, it's possible, even likely, that in aggregate those states account for more than 50% of the working population -- but considerably less than 100%. Yet you then jump to using a figure ("every month close to 2 million people lose their job involuntarily") that represents 100% of the country.

5. "(E)every month close to 2 million people lose their job involuntarily (fired to laid off)" would be true -- give or take -- even if the economy were operating at full capacity. You posit 3% of those jobs would be saved if enough employers (in the 25 work-sharing states?) participated in work-sharing. So why aren't those employers doing so now? Your answer is that Obama (King Barack!) is not publicizing it. That's conjecture on your part, and when it comes to conjecture I'm as qualified as you are.

So let me freely conjecture, also -- after first pointing out that states with work-sharing programs certainly have publicized their existence to the only important audiences (employers, unions) of the programs, and it's highly unlikely that significantly sized employers are unaware of these programs, as they have executive-level people whose responsibility is to know about such programs and to recommend taking advantage of them if they deem it to be in their company's interest.

Now on to my own conjecturing: While Germany, as you have repeatedly pointed out, has successfully employed work-sharing, the U.S. is not Germany in ways pertinent to our discussion. First, and foremost, as I have pointed out, in Germany there is a social alliance among industry, labor, and government that doesn't exist in the U.S. -- and thus a social norm ensuring that work-sharing will be widely adopted. I conjecture that the absence of the German alliance, and consequent social norm, is far more likely to account for the low "pickup" on work-sharing you identify (I take your word for it) than Obama's lack of publicity. Secondly, Germany is a much smaller, much more homogeneous nation than the U.S. Except when the nation is under threat from abroad, we're-all-in-this-together is less likely to be the prevailing attitude in the U.S. than in Germany. Pertinent Exhibit A: Twenty-five states (50%!) did not adopt work-sharing programs. (Roughly the same number are waging guerrilla warfare against Obamacare, for crying out loud!)

Again, I don't dispute that the White House could have done more to publicize work-sharing, though I'm not convinced that your hypothetical data make the case that such publicity would have been as significant as you conjecture. But, again, my mild, and I hope respectfully couched, objection to you post was that it implied that the sorry state of the U.S. economy is entirely due to the ineffectual White House economic team, and that you succumbed to Green Lanternism.

Finally, let me again emphasize that I find your frustration with the lack of effective government response to our unnecessarily long mass-unemployment crisis to be justified, and I share your frustration. Also, as I have before, let me express my gratitude for your indispensable blog. Illegitimi non carborundum!
written by A Populist, September 02, 2013 4:20
Dean Baker (Paraphrased): "I wish President Obama would help make the work-sharing program better known, and if Obama is trying to find a way around the Republicans, it is hard to see."

Obama supporters: "Green Lanternism." (Cue for all Obama supporters to stick their fingers in their ears, dismiss any criticism with off-the-cuff assertions, and avoid any re-thinking or questioning of policy, persons, or tactics).
Not conjecture
written by Dean, September 02, 2013 9:20

I'll let this rest with two points. First, I was basing my statement on employers not knowing based on discussions with people in state UI agencies. This was their conjecture, not mine. FWIW, I did have a conversation a few years back with the CEO of a major steel company who was boasting about his no layoff policy. I asked him if he took advantage of state short-work programs. He said that he didn't know anything about them.

As far manipulating data, no. I was referring to the total number of people losing their job each month. I was then pointing out if 3 percent of this group could be kept at work through work sharing that would be the same as creating 60k more jobs a month. That is a true statement -- zero manipulation.

I never said that all 2 million were eligible for work sharing. As you noted, some are in states that don't have work sharing. Some work for firms that would not qualify. (Many, perhaps all, states have minimal firm size.) Also, many workers don't qualify for benefits because they haven't worked long enough.

I didn't go through these issues because I was trying to make a simple point. Obviously there are reasons why we will not see most workers keep their jobs through work sharing. However, if just a small share did, it would make a huge difference in the employment picture. That point is true and there is no escaping it.
written by Fred Brack, September 03, 2013 6:25
Dr. Baker,

You have beaten me into retreat -- though not full retreat. If state UI people have told you that employers (or at least enough of them) have not been made aware of work-sharing programs in their states, than your point that the Obama Administration is culpable is indisputable. (Though I wonder why state UI authorities should be let off the hook.)

I'll also withdraw the data-manipulating charge -- though you, the most rigorously data-driven econo-blogger around, disappointed me by using a whole-economy number when that number was not relevant to the part of the economy affected by work-sharing programs. But your larger point is indisputable: if even a tiny fraction of lost jobs could be restored by work-sharing the effect would be significant. That's why when my state instituted a work-sharing program even before Congress got around to it, I was elated.

But, darn, Dr. Baker, I still object to manifestations of The President Is King Fallacy that have coursed through public-policy discussions since 2009. Whenever I raise this topic in blog comment threads I'm scorned as merely a "Obama apologist." Sorry, as an adult I've lived through every Democratic administration since JFK. And I've never agreed wholly with any administration (though just because I disagree doesn't mean I'm right and a president is wrong, an acknowledgement of fallibility that I wish all blog commenters -- and pundits -- would adopt to enable more thoughtful discussions.)

So, yes, the Obama economic team has not been as effectual as it could have been. But I'll stubbornly maintain that a simple, tried-and-true Keynesian analysis leads to the conclusion that it is Congress -- in particular congressional Republicans -- that bears principal responsibility for the dire straits the economy and the tens of millions of actual people who constitute that abstraction remain in. And I am also convinced that if The Fed were, as Krugman puts it, credibly promising to be irresponsible, that might have a significant effect on the pace of the recovery.

There's no question among economists-without-ideological-professional-or-partisan-agendas that a sufficiently scaled and long-lasting fiscal-stimulus program would boost the economy back to trend, or close to it. Less certain is The Fed trying to act through the inflation-expectations channel. But The Fed isn't even trying.

Work-sharing? Sure, the administration should get off its duff. But is it merely lack of administration publicity that has caused little takeup? Or are there social-norm factors at work? Good subject for a research paper.

Meanwhile, let's put the onus where it belongs. If we don't properly diagnose the cause of a problem we can never solve it -- as you repeatedly say regarding health-care costs.

And the problem with the economy isn't the executive branch, it's legislative-branch paralysis deliberately imposed by Republicans. And The Fed's willful inattention to its legal responsibility.
Thanks Fred
written by Dean, September 05, 2013 8:15
I appreciate the sincerity of your argument. However, I still can't come down in the same place. Yes, the Republicans are bad guys. So what?

The Republicans are there and will continue to be bad guys for the foreseeable future. So we are supposed to tell the tens of millions of people that are suffering because of the weak economy that this is just the way it goes?

The job of the administration has to be to try every tool available to them to get people back to work every way they can. I have focused on work sharing because this seems like a simple and easy thing to do that is in the law already. We don't need a Green Lantern character to magically overturn the inaction of Congress. We just need an administration that is willing to use the tools available.

Their failure to take this option seriously, coupled with the complete lack of any visible evidence that they are doing anything to try to turn the economy around is my complete. You want to tell me that they are doing everything possible and we just can't see it. I have a hard time taking that one seriously.
written by Fred Brack, September 06, 2013 12:56
Well, Dr. Baker, I didn't say the administration is doing everything possible. In fact, not being an economist, I don't know what "everything" is. But -- and I mean this sincerely, not argumentatively -- I'm sure you do. So what, in addition to publicizing work-sharing programs, should the administration be doing that is politically feasible?

(Perhaps, in order to gain more attention on your blog, you could make your recommendations a new post and thus separate it from these exchanges we have had -- for which I am grateful but have gone on long enough and wasted enough of your valuable time.)

Btw: You are infuriated and morally aghast at the cruel, absolutely unnecessary prolongation of the Great Recession. But please don't imply that I am not, that I am shrugging and saying, "this is just the way it goes." The socio-economic class I grew up in is the one most affected by the neglect of policymakers. I know from deep personal experience the devastation unemployment wreaks on individuals and their families.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.