Monday, September 12, 2011

I've come up with some ideas on how to create jobs. To pay for it I've decided to hire the guys who brought you the debt ceiling fiasco. Sound like a plan?

There's a lot going on in the world but I want to write something on Obama's speech last week.

I was interested for two reasons. First, I have been studiously avoiding the clown car demolition derby that is the GOP primary but I remain interested in the political contest, such as it is. Given that Obama's approval ratings are going over a cliff and polls show he would lose against a generic Republican, if not any of the actual Republican candidates, this was an important speech for him. Second, I was very interested to see what sorts of policy initiatives he would put forward. As you will see from my next series of posts I think that the trouble brewing in Europe is extremely dangerous to the global economy and anything the US can do to increase the rate of US growth would be very helpful at this stage of the game.

In the end, the speech was far more interesting from the political angle than from the economic angle. From a policy perspective the “American Jobs Act” contains a few new tweaks of the mechanics of unemployment insurance but otherwise is more or less a $550 billion extension of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA or “the stimulus.”) It contains some infrastructure spending, extensions of unemployment benefits, transfers to states to pay public employees, an extension of the payroll tax cut, and accelerated depreciation. I found this pretty disappointing. If $1.6 trillion of these initiatives failed to revive employment then why should another $550 billion do the job? To be sure the ARRA has its defenders though I am not one of them. I was doubtful that the President would bring something new to the table but I wanted to be surprised. In the end, my doubts were confirmed. 

I should mention that in the 2008 elections I supported Obama. I donated the legal maximum to his campaign both in the Democratic primary and in the general election. I had many reasons for doing this a short list would be that I was disgusted with the job the Republicans had done running the country, horror at the prospect of Sarah Palin in any position of responsibility whatsoever, and I'll admit, I was captured by the rhetoric. I thought his speech after the Jeremiah Wright controversy was brilliant. Given that it was clear that the country was in for some serious trouble as the financial crisis gathered strength I felt the country needed some inspirational leadership and I thought Obama might provide it. In the back of my mind I was aware that his resume was remarkably thin but he seemed so much brighter than most other politicians I felt that perhaps he would grow into the role and I hoped that perhaps he might be a transformational character. Having admitted this I'll also have to admit that I have been disappointed with his policies generally. I'm to the left of Obama on healthcare and pretty far to the right of him on economic policy. Thus I was not surprised by the lack of policy initiatives that I thought might be effective. I was surprised by the political nature of the speech.

First of all was the setting. He did not address the nation from the Oval Office but instead called a joint session of Congress and initially tried to schedule it to upstage the GOP debate. The speech itself was not so much an address to the American people as a harangue of Congress, specifically the recently elected Republican freshmen who have been taking the President apart over the budget. Indeed, the speech was delivered directly to them, the President said “Pass this bill, pass it now” or derivatives thereof ten times in the course of the speech. What references there were to the actual citizens were stage whispered asides about how the government works for the people and the people are unhappy with the government. So, why would you get up in front of Congress, present them a bill whose merits you claim are self evident, and then demand ten times that they pass it in front of a television audience of the voters? It seems like an odd set up to me but there you have it.

The speech itself had some interesting moments. My favorite was when he mentioned Lincoln's support for the trans-continental railroad as an example of a Republican going ahead and putting public funds to good use. The speechwriter was probably not too familiar with the corporate history of the Union Pacific. It was at the center of what was probably the largest corruption scandal in the history of the federal government. The authorization bill was so badly written the Union Pacific was in litigation for nearly a century, including nearly a dozen Supreme Court cases, over what precisely the terms of its obligations back to the government were. Of course, several private transcontinentals were also built in the years following the Civil War. The UP was however an outstanding source of campaign contributions to Congressmen, judges and state legislatures, particularly when it was in the hands of Jay Gould who tried unsuccessfully to resolve the legal disputes through mass bribery. So at least from the perspective of the legislators on the receiving end of this largesse it was a major success. Not the kind of thing I would put in a speech though.

I also liked how Obama could in one sentence frame his opposition as on the side of “millionaires and billionaires” and himself on the side of “teachers” and “our kids” and then in the next sentence say “this is not class warfare.” It's me and the teachers against the Republicans and the billionaires? If that's not a reference to class strife then I don't know what is. Still, it was artfully done and I think the Republicans have done an atrocious job of explaining their position. I also thought that he might have wanted to do some more research around his rejection of "the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy." Surely the Democratic Party, the annual recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions from unions, must have noticed that the only places where unions continue to thrive are in services and the public sector. Of course service employees and the public sector are not subject to global competition. Union membership in the traded goods segment has been totally obliterated in the last 30 years. Obama himself presided over the most spectacular example of this when US automakers with their UAW workers had to be rescued by the state while the non-union automakers in the South kept right on going. 

In any case, the main event of the speech for me was the rhetorical bait and switch around how the AJA will be paid for. He led strong with “Everything in this bill will be paid for. And here's how.” At this I was on the edge of my seat. The hard part of leadership and governing is not giving away tax breaks and entitlements but figuring out how to pay for them, and now Obama, the responsible leader, is going to do just that. Thank God, but then.... “The agreement we passed in July will cut government spending by about $1 trillion over the next 10 years. It also charges this Congress to come up with an additional $1.5 trillion in savings by Christmas. Tonight, I am asking you to increase that amount so that it covers the full cost of the American Jobs Act. The agreement we passed in July will cut government spending by about $1 trillion over the next 10 years. It also charges this Congress to come up with an additional $1.5 trillion in savings by Christmas. Tonight, I am asking you to increase that amount so that it covers the full cost of the American Jobs Act.”

What? Wait a minute. So his big idea for how to pay for it is to ask the Congress to figure it out for him? Hold on a second, didn't he do that back in February when he decided not to implement any of the recommendations of his own deficit cutting committee and sent Biden to the Congressional negotiations for the first three months thereby ceding the initiative to Congressional Republicans? Yes, he sure as hell did. How did that work out? Hmmm.... let me think..... Oh, now I remember the freshmen GOP Congressmen crucified him with the debt ceiling fiasco, nearly put the country into default and in so doing got the credit of the country downgraded. What's more that fiasco was only averted by the eleventh hour deal the President refers to but whose terms he wants to change. So at best he's reneging on the original agreement for $2.5 trillion and upping it to $3 trillion and at worst he's totally abdicating responsibility and putting it on the very people who almost drove us over a cliff in the first place. What about all that talk about how the GOP in Congress were a bunch of irresponsible kids and the finances of the country need to be handled by “grownups.” So, here Obama gets a chance to take some responsibility and what does he do? He puts the ball right back in the court of the kiddies. Seriously, what's behind all this? I mean, the person who knows best what will happen to the AJA in congress is Obama himself. If the last time he punted fiscal responsibility to Congress the result was a total legislative fiasco why would he do it again?

I hate to say it but I think the answer is that he knows full well that it will be a fiasco, and that he wins to a Congressional Republican fiasco. It seems pretty clear that there's little chance that the economy improves significantly before 2012. Obama knows that as bad as he looked during the debt ceiling debate the Republicans looked worse. His plan seems to be to go on TV, and in front of the cameras demand that Congress pass his jobs bill. Never mind that the AJA is just a diet version of the ARRA. Never mind that the ARRA was not a stellar success. Never mind that it still required $1.6 trillion of debt finance. These things supply the only coherence the Tea Party possesses, so Obama is trying to use them to his advantage.

Rather than actually formulate how to pay for the AJA he's decided to lay that part of it at the feet of the very people who almost put the government into default rather than borrow more money or raise taxes which he knows full well will be necessary if we're going to extend the ARRA for another 3% of GDP. He also knows that the Republican base will not stand for those tax increases or additional borrowing and will hold the GOPs feet to the fire to prevent it. So he knows that the AJA will struggle in congress, in fact I think he hopes it does. He may even wish for it to go down in flames. Then when indeed the economy does not recover by 2012 he can say that if only the Republicans had passed his jobs bill all would be well. And after Thursday the video editors for his campaign ads have ten shots too choose from of him telling Congress to do what he knows they have a minimal chance of actually doing. No one will remember that the original stimulus was extremely expensive but not very effective. They won't remember that by adding another $550 billion to the $2.5 trillion he's reneging on the original deal further eroding his capacity to negotiate with Congress anyway. No, they'll remember Obama telling Congress to pass the jobs bill and then congress, ie Republicans, screwed it all up. For Obama, mission accomplished. For the unemployed, not so much.

It makes all that gooey nonsense at the end of the speech about the expectations of the American people sound like a sneer, as if the people in the audience are too stupid to notice that he is doing exactly the opposite of what we sent him there to do: taking responsibility and making hard decisions. Instead, he's handing the responsibility over to people who have already played chicken with the economic security of the country just so that he can blame put them when he's running for office next year. Great. 

I recognize that my criticism of the ARRA and the political rather than economic nature of this post obligates me to step up and discuss the economics behind this in more detail, more to come. 


Anonymous said...

Who was the last president to write his own speeches?

Ken said...

I really don't know the answer to that. I think they all write some of them. I think Obama may have written his speech on race, and maybe had a lot to do with his speech in Cairo.