New Article on QE3, Plus the Kocherlakota Move

Sep 24, 2012Mike Konczal

I have a new article on understanding QE3 at The American Prospect which I hope you check out.

Several people have commented on it already, but I want to note that Narayana Kocherlakota is now in favor of more monetary action.

I have a new article on understanding QE3 at The American Prospect which I hope you check out.

Several people have commented on it already, but I want to note that Narayana Kocherlakota is now in favor of more monetary action.

To put this in perspective, here's the September 21st 2011 FOMC statement: "Voting against the action were Richard W. Fisher, Narayana Kocherlakota, and Charles I. Plosser, who did not support additional policy accommodation at this time." Kocherlakota also voted against this action in August.

At this time, he was making arguments that since "the U.S. economy has experienced large increases in the federal budget deficits, contributing substantially to the overall federal debt" and "In response to the recession, the federal government extended the duration of unemployment insurance benefits," this could have caused the natural rate of unemployment to shift so that "the implied u* is 8.7 percent." That the natural rate of unemployment was incredibly high was an argument Kocherlakota had been pushing for some time: here he is in August 2010 arguing mismatch had pushed the NAIRU up 3 percentage points in this recession.

A month later, in the November 2nd, 2011 FOMC statement, there was the first dissent on behalf of the unemployed and in favor of more easing during the entire Great Recession. "Voting against the action was Charles L. Evans, who supported additional policy accommodation at this time."

Now, almost a year later, Kocherlakota is arguing a version of the Evans rule: "As long as the FOMC satisfies its price stability mandate, it should keep the fed funds rate extraordinarily low until the unemployment rate has fallen below 5.5 percent." He explicitly credits Evans with this rule, noting "President Charles Evans of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago has also proposed what I’m calling a liftoff plan...Those familiar with his plan will see that my thinking has been greatly influenced by his. This is perhaps hardly surprising, since he sits next to me at every FOMC meeting!"

Even though this is a relatively conservative version of the Evans rule, there are two important consequences. The first is that dissent is now taking place on Evans' terms. During 2010-2011 the debate, especially on the hawks side, was about "structural unemployment" and whether or not the Federal Reserve should accept that unemployment should remain well above 8%. Now it is about what the Fed is willing to tolerate to get unemployment below 6%. This is a major sea change.

This also takes away the intellectual firepower of the monetary hawks. Kocherlakota is an academic's academic, and his arguments were always based in the dense mathematics of job search models and job-opening ratios. Now that he's moved over to Evans' framework on tradeoffs, it isn't clear that there will be anyone at the regional levels of the Federal Reserve producing numbers arguing that we should focus mainly on how to match workers to job openings. That's a major victory towards a more sensible monetary policy going forward.

 

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The Recession Ends. Then What?

Sep 24, 2012

It may be hard to imagine, but (we all hope, anyway) some day the recession and meager recovery period will come to an end. At that point, will the debates we're having now about the economy become completely irrelevant? What will we have to fight about?

It may be hard to imagine, but (we all hope, anyway) some day the recession and meager recovery period will come to an end. At that point, will the debates we're having now about the economy become completely irrelevant? What will we have to fight about? Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal and EPI's Josh Bivens took this question on in the latest Fireside Chats episode on Bloggingheads:

As Mike points out, "Right now the debates seem very focused on things very specific to this recession," such as what the Federal Reserve could do to make things better or whether we should reduce mortgage burdens to boost consumption. Those are "very technical and very important debates to be having," he points out, "but they’re very narrow to the moment we’re in right now." Once we one day leave these issues behind, what will liberals decide to promote? And will we all be able to get on board?

The first issue Josh sees rearing its head is what we consider the "natural" rate of unemployment to be. Right now it's pretty obvious that unemployment is too high. At what point does it fall so much that some people, including the Fed, start to say it shouldn't go any lower? This question will have larger implications as well. As Mike says, "You see policy experts running around trying to figure out how to boost the wages of the lower quintile, but we know what has done it in the past 30 years, and it’s when unemployment is below 5 percent for a sustainable period of time." In fact, he says, a low unemployment rate "is the ultimate jobs program, it is the ultimate policy solution," and boosts wages for everyone -- not just those at the bottom.

What else will we squabble over when the economy once again booms? Bivens predicts social insurance programs -- Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare -- will have to be on the agenda. And related to that will be just how high we can go with tax rates on the rich. "Obviously you can have a fairness argument and a just deserts argument, but the economic case is pretty clear that [tax] rates [on the wealthier] could go much higher," Mike says. "But we’re seeing resistence to just getting to near 40 percent at this point." Brace yourself, political battles are coming.

Watch the full episode below, in which Mike and Josh discuss how little we all take home and whether inequality and the social safety net have anything to do with it:

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The Recession Ends. Then What?

Sep 24, 2012

It may be hard to imagine, but (we all hope, anyway) some day the recession and meager recovery period will come to an end. At that point, will the debates we're having now about the economy become completely irrelevant? What will we have to fight about? Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal and EPI's Josh Bivens took this question on in the latest Fireside Chats episode on Bloggingheads:

It may be hard to imagine, but (we all hope, anyway) some day the recession and meager recovery period will come to an end. At that point, will the debates we're having now about the economy become completely irrelevant? What will we have to fight about? Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal and EPI's Josh Bivens took this question on in the latest Fireside Chats episode on Bloggingheads:

As Mike points out, "Right now the debates seem very focused on things very specific to this recession," such as what the Federal Reserve could do to make things better or whether we should reduce mortgage burdens to boost consumption. Those are "very technical and very important debates to be having," he points out, "but they’re very narrow to the moment we’re in right now." Once we one day leave these issues behind, what will liberals decide to promote? And will we all be able to get on board?

The first issue Josh sees rearing its head is what we consider the "natural" rate of unemployment to be. Right now it's pretty obvious that unemployment is too high. At what point does it fall so much that some people, including the Fed, start to say it shouldn't go any lower? This question will have larger implications as well. As Mike says, "You see policy experts running around trying to figure out how to boost the wages of the lower quintile, but we know what has done it in the past 30 years, and it’s when unemployment is below 5 percent for a sustainable period of time." In fact, he says, a low unemployment rate "is the ultimate jobs program, it is the ultimate policy solution," and boosts wages for everyone -- not just those at the bottom.

What else will we squabble over when the economy once again booms? Bivens predicts social insurance programs -- Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare -- will have to be on the agenda. And related to that will be just how high we can go with tax rates on the rich. "Obviously you can have a fairness argument and a just deserts argument, but the economic case is pretty clear that [tax] rates [on the wealthier] could go much higher," Mike says. "But we’re seeing resistence to just getting to near 40 percent at this point." Brace yourself, political battles are coming.

Watch the full episode below, in which Mike and Josh discuss how little we all take home and whether inequality and the social safety net have anything to do with it:

 

Crossroads image via Shutterstock.com.

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The GOP's Zombie Dodd-Frank Would Lose the Core Logic of Financial Reform

Sep 20, 2012Mike Konczal

Republicans might not repeal Dodd-Frank outright, but they'd eliminate the system of rules that make it work.

Republicans might not repeal Dodd-Frank outright, but they'd eliminate the system of rules that make it work.

It was just announced that Tim Pawlenty will become the head of the bank lobbying group Financial Services Roundtable. The powerful financial lobbying group, which represents groups like JP Morgan and Bank of America among other big financial sector players, appears to be aligning itself more closely with the Republican Party and betting on the idea that Republicans will control at least part of Congress. But what do they want? Earlier in the year, I argued in Washington Monthly that they'd like to repeal the core parts of financial reform.

Recently, Phil Mattingly had an article at Bloomberg Businessweek about how the GOP and Mitt Romney would approach Dodd-Frank. This is with a hat-tip to Reihan Salam who notes that this article "has confirmed something I’ve heard from well-informed insiders" and makes additional arguments [1]. So it seems well-sourced.

Mattingly's argument is that it is unlikely that the Republicans will outright repeal Dodd-Frank. "Instead, President Romney would likely try to give the financial industry something it wants more: a diluted financial reform law that would relax restrictions on some of its most profitable—and riskiest—investments but maintain enough government oversight to give the banks cover."

So what would the Republicans try to dilute and remove? Mattingly:

"Wall Street wants to loosen rules governing the swaps market, which generated $7 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2012, according to government records. The banks would also get rid of restrictions on bank investment in private equity and hedge funds, pare back the power of the new federal consumer protection agency, and block the Volcker Rule, which bars banks from trading with money from their own accounts, a practice that can put customer deposits at risk. [...]

Wall Street doesn’t oppose everything in the law. Banks support the “resolution authority” that spells out how and when the government can seize and wind down struggling banks before they catastrophically fail."

So they want to go after derivatives rules (swaps), the Volcker Rule and the related law on restrictions on hedge fund investments, and also the CFPB. It's important to understand this isn't like removing random parts of the bill, as strict as they may be, but is instead gutting the core logic of the law. It's the equivalent of Republicans saying they'd keep the Obamacare bill, but stop the exchanges, remove the individual mandate, and lose the ban on pre-existing conditions while getting rid of the means-tested subsidies and Medicaid expansion. We'd understand that all of the parts of this system are interconnected and inseparable; the ban requires everyone to be in the market, which requires subsidies and well-developed markets.

Let's make sure we understand how derivatives, the Volcker Rule, and the CFPB all work together. Imagine that we're car engineers, and we want to design a car and road system so that if the car crashes, it does so as safely as possible. There are four things we can do. We can put airbags and seatbelts in the car and other cars so that when it does crash the damage is limited and controlled. We can design the car with things like a brake override system so that if it hits a rough patch the driver can keep control of it and make it less likely to crash.  We can put some speed limits on the road, as well as clear traffic signals to guide cars from running into each other. And we can have some protection for pedestrians, like cops watching for DUIs or barriers to prevent cars from driving into crowds of people. Easy, right?

Now let's think of Dodd-Frank. There are the legal powers that deploy to resolve a firm if it fails, like an airbag, which are called resolution authority. This allows the FDIC to take down a failed financial firm as if it were a bank, subject to serious rules and restrictions.  And, like requiring certain car features, there are specific policies for large, systemically risky financial firms, like enhanced capital requirements, limits to investments in risky hedge-funds, and the Volcker Rule, which are designed to make it less likely for a firm to crash.

Dodd-Frank also introduces speed limits and rules of the road in the financial sector, designed to make the system as a whole less likely to crash or spiral out of control when a panic does happen. One primary place it does that is through derivatives regulations. And "cops on the beat" is the metaphor for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

So there's Dodd-Frank law to allow a firm to fail, law to make it less likely a financial firm fails, laws to prevent the interconnected financial markets from going into crisis if a firm does fail, and law to gives consumers a representative in dealing with the regulatory field. This is like thinking of Dodd-Frank as a system of deterrance, detection, and resolutiion, a related model we've developed elsewhere.

If Wall Street and the Republicans are looking to seriously gut the Volcker Rule, derivatives, and the CFPB, then they're looking to gut the entire logic of the bill. Interestingly, they are less interested in "resolution authority," the legal process to fail a financial firm. This is evidently no problem with everything else removed, perhaps because they believe congressional bailouts will then happen. This should remind us that resolution authority is strengthened and made more credible by other strong regulations, including things not in Dodd-Frank, like size caps or Glass-Steagall. Preventing these diluations is crucial to building a regulatory system for the financial sector that works in the 21st century.

[1] Reihan notes that banks "also understand that [Dodd-Frank] favors incumbents over new entrants, particularly incumbents with the legal acumen and lobbying resources to shape the emerging regulatory regime. My strong preference, very much in line with conservative and libertarian sensibilities, would be for a financial reform that would aim to facilitate rather than stymie entry."

I'd like to see more on how Dodd-Frank as blocking new firm entry works. While this is a generic complaint of regulations in general, I'm not sure in what ways it applies to Dodd-Frank. Parts of Dodd-Frank actually are designed to scale up with size and risk, e.g. Sec. 171 requires capital requirements to scale with "concentrations in market share for any activity that would substantially disrupt financial markets if the institution is forced to unexpectedly cease the activity," which is not for new entries. The idea is to hold larger and riskier firms to tougher standards and higher capital, which is regulation that scales with size.

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Central Banks Are Saving Democracy From Itself

Sep 17, 2012Jeff Madrick

We may want more democratic control over the Federal Reserve, but its independence is allowing it to push back against austerity.

We may want more democratic control over the Federal Reserve, but its independence is allowing it to push back against austerity.

The Federal Reserve's recent announcement of aggressive new policies is more than a little welcome. It involved a new round of quantitative easing focused on mortgage-backed securities, but more importantly, a statement that the Fed would keep rates low for a long time, even if the unemployment rate begins to fall markedly. In other words, the Fed will be more tolerant of rising inflation. A couple of points are clear and have been widely discussed:
 
First, more inflation is what this economy needs. It will reduce “real” interest rates down the road. It will also reduce the level of debt, which will now be paid off in somewhat inflated dollars. Lenders will pay the price; borrowers will benefit.
 
Second, the Fed is at last accepting its dual mandate, which is not only to keep inflation in check but also to keep unemployment in check as well. Inflation got almost all the focus since Paul Volcker’s reign in the early 1980s.
 
Third, inflation targeting as almost the sole purpose of any government policy is now either not applicable to current circumstances or never really was the answer to our prayers. The main claimant on the uses of either hard or soft inflation targeting was none other than Ben Bernanke himself. He was the champion of the Great Moderation, which held that less GDP volatility and low inflation were admirable ends in themselves -- proof of a nearly perfectly managed economy.  
 
Never mind that growth in the late 1990s was supported by high-tech speculation in the stock market, or that growth in the early 2000s was supported by a housing bubble and crazy, risky practices on Wall Street. And forget that job growth was the worst of the postwar period under George W. Bush, even before the 2008 recession, and wages had been performing poorly for 30 years. It was all really great, said Bernanke, and only a few mainstream economists disagreed.
 
But there is another point that needs emphasis and is being passed over. This one is about democracy. Bernanke is acting aggressively because the American Congress and president are locked in an austerity embrace. Fiscal stimulus is now turning into de-stimulus. Even the president’s budget calls for fiscal restraint. The deficit bugaboo is strangling the world.   
 
Those who want to make the Fed more subject to democratic control – and to a degree, I am sympathetic -- should heed a lesson here. Democracy -- that is, a democratically elected Congress and president -- is choosing a damaging course of austerity. In Europe, it is far worse. 
 
Needed policies are coming from America’s central bank, which was deliberately created as an independent entity. Note that it is Romney who is saying he wants Bernanke out of there and crying wolf about inflation. Bernanke, not subject to the whims of democracy, has had the courage to change his own thinking. He knows the consequences of tight policy now.
 
So what do we do? We should be a little modest about the universal benefits of democracy. For example, I think democracy may yet work to end the severest levels of austerity in Europe. People are mad. Governments are changing for the better. Demoracy in America is the only answer to an ever-richer and more powerful oligarchic class in the U.S., which wants to lower taxes, limit regulations, and cut government into ever smaller pieces.
 
But we must also deal with the disturbing fact that one of the least democratic of our institutions, the Fed, is the only one saving the day now. The same is true in Europe, where the European Central Bank is now acting intelligently, in contrast to the fiscal hawks dominated by the German policymakers and apparently supported by a majority of the German people. This issue is not simple.
 

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.

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On the Occupy/Strike Debt "Debt Resistors'" Manual

Sep 14, 2012Mike Konczal

People have been talking a lot about the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. There is special interest with the movement's turn to organizing around the idea of debt as a "connective thread" for the 99%. The most recent issue of The Nation has two articles on the topic, with Astra Taylor witing "Occupy 2.0: Strike Debt" and David Graeber writing "Can Debt Spark a Revolution?"

People have been talking a lot about the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. There is special interest with the movement's turn to organizing around the idea of debt as a "connective thread" for the 99%. The most recent issue of The Nation has two articles on the topic, with Astra Taylor witing "Occupy 2.0: Strike Debt" and David Graeber writing "Can Debt Spark a Revolution?"

There's a Strike Debt/Occupy Wall Street group, and they have put out a Debt Resistors' Operations Manual, which is embedded here at the end of this post and available at that link as a pdf. You can pick up a hard copy of the document tomorrow, Saturday, in Washington Square Park from 10:30 a.m. till 7:30 p.m. and at Judson Church from 7:30 p.m. till 9:30 p.m.

Reading it, I agree with Yves Smith's assessment that it "achieves the difficult feat of giving people in various types of debt an overview of their situation, including political issues, and practical suggestions in clear, layperson-friendly language." You should read her review in its entirety, and check it out for yourself. I want to talk a little bit about it from a different angle, noting how each half of the book builds out a new direction for Occupy.
 
Over the summer, Jodi Dean argued that debt would be a difficult connective thread to pull off for a political movement. It's too individualized, too prone to viewing people as failed market agents, too moralized, and it can mimic unhelpful reactionary arguments against the welfare state and the government. I know people involved in organizing homeowners, especially underwater and deliquent homeowners, and I can say that these are all very accurate problems. Beyond that, nobody likes their identity as a struggling debtor. People can take pride in their role as workers, as citizens, and as numerous other things organizers can build on, but debt is a real challenge. The failure part runs deep.
 
So there's a couple of interesting things in the Strike Debt booklet that I think are useful as a political statement. The first half of the book is about the major types of consumer debt -- medical, housing, education, and credit card -- as well as the credit scoring agencies. And the book places runaway consumer debt in the context of larger institutions that are failing to meet the needs of the population.
 
The medical debt chapter calls for universal health care, the student debt chapter calls for free public colleges, and the credit card chapter is titled "The Plastic Safety Net," directly alluding to weakness in income maintence and basic income support. The credit scoring chapter points out how these debts, and your ability to pay them, are tied to your ability to gain access to basic needs like utilities, phone lines, and health care.
 
These are all essential goods for our lives, and we choose the institutions that will deliver them. They can be publicly provided, based in principles of social insurance, decommodification, and access independent of wealth. Or they can be provided in individualized ways, ones that replace social insurance with self-insurance through individualized, large debt loads, while also working to the benefit of private agents.
 
But these are both choices. And this focus on debt is a way of understanding the wrong choices we've made as a society in providing for these goods, and who benefits and who loses from them. People should understand their debts as part of a system's design, rather than its failure. If developed, it could turn into a powerful statement for the commons and for a more progressive and social democratic approach to all of these topics.
 
It also approaches the 1 percent issue in a new way. Instead of a lot of arguments about the just deserts of the richest, the 1 percent and the "financialized" sectors of the economy are those who profit from inserting themselves between social goods and those who desperately need them. The second half of the book focuses not on individual debts but structures that benefit creditors. From municipal debt to the "expensive to be poor" areas of fringe finance to debt collection and bankruptcy, there's a whole series of institutions that work against debtors, the poor, and civic infrastructure.
 
Here the banks aren't just nefarious agents taking too much of the pie; they are the people overcharging the poor to be able to cash a check or otherwise engage in trade. They are the people ignoring the Fair Debt Collection Act, harassing your family on old debts they bought on the cheap. And they are the ones privatizing municipal structures, collecting the gains while socializing the losses. And that's a new way of understanding the 1 percent's power, and how to resist it, and ultimately overcome it in the kind of world we want to build, which is a major step forward.
 
As Astra Taylor wrote in her Nation piece, "As individuals, many of us are in debt because we have to borrow to secure basic social goods—education, healthcare, housing and retirement—that should be publicly provided. Meanwhile, around the world, debt is used to justify cutting these very services, even as the game is further rigged so that the 1 percent continues to profit, raking in money from tax cuts, privatization schemes and interest on municipal and treasury bonds."
 
Will it be enough to spark a genuine political movement? Who knows. But it is a document worth your time, and the issues it brings up will hopefully form a core narrative of all future political struggles.

Occupy Wall Street/Strike Debt: The Debt Resistors' Operations Manual

 

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Guest Post at Business Insider: Animated Gifs and Monetary Policy

Sep 11, 2012Mike Konczal

I have a guest post up at Business Insider, which uses animated gifs to explain the current battle over monetary policy in the aftermath of the recent Jackson Hole conference. Hope you check it out.

I have a guest post up at Business Insider, which uses animated gifs to explain the current battle over monetary policy in the aftermath of the recent Jackson Hole conference. Hope you check it out.

It was inspired by a post where Joe Weisenthal responded to an animated gif of a baby throwing money out the window as a metaphor for QE by explaining, in detail, why it was wrong. I pointed out that you can only respond to an animated gif with more animated gifs - and then we realized we needed to corner the market on the no doubt soon to boom monetary policy animated gif industry.

For reference, this Ann Friedman article on animated gifs is a great, and the whatshouldwecallme tumblr is a fun place to check out continuously updated animated gifs.

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Konczal and Grunwald: Could the Stimulus Have Been Better Without Being Bigger?

Sep 10, 2012

We've all heard the standard arguments about the stimulus: progressives think it should have been bigger, while conservatives think it was a pork-filled monstrosity.

We've all heard the standard arguments about the stimulus: progressives think it should have been bigger, while conservatives think it was a pork-filled monstrosity. But in the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Mike Konczal talks to Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal, about four stronger criticisms of the bill from the left.

Konczal notes that it probably wouldn't have been possible to pass a larger stimulus through Congress, but his first question is "Why didn't we have a WPA? President Roosevelt went out in one month and hired like four million people," so if we're facing a similar jobs crisis now, "why don't we just go and hire five million people to do whatever?"

Next, the Michaels discuss President Obama's rhetorical pivot toward deficit reduction and "the idea that you couldn't pass the first stimulus, you couldn't do more to expand the economy, without also bringing down the long-term debt," which led Obama to "straitjacket himself on this issue of worrying about the bond market."

Third, Konczal argues that "President Obama very much looked at how to attack the problem of unemployment as a budgetary phenomenon as opposed to using every lever at his disposal," including the Federal Reserve and the nationalized GSEs. Rather, he chose to "kick the can on housing, hoping unemployment would come down in two years."

Finally, Konczal says "the New Deal brought in kind of a new contract with government" that involved the creation of a safety net and a much stronger role for the federal government in the economy. He and Grunwald explore whether Obama's policies have the potential to create another paradigm shift that is "fundamentally a new kind of social reality, a political reality."

For more, including details on what was actually in the stimulus and how it reflected President Obama's broader agenda, check out the full video below:

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Konczal and Grunwald: Could the Stimulus Have Been Better Without Being Bigger?

Sep 10, 2012

We've all heard the standard arguments about the stimulus: progressives think it should have been bigger, while conservatives think it was a pork-filled monstrosity. But in the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Mike Konczal talks to Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal, about four stronger criticisms of the bill from the left.

We've all heard the standard arguments about the stimulus: progressives think it should have been bigger, while conservatives think it was a pork-filled monstrosity. But in the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Mike Konczal talks to Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal, about four stronger criticisms of the bill from the left.

Konczal notes that it probably wouldn't have been possible to pass a larger stimulus through Congress, but his first question is "Why didn't we have a WPA? President Roosevelt went out in one month and hired like four million people," so if we're facing a similar jobs crisis now, "why don't we just go and hire five million people to do whatever?"

Next, the Michaels discuss President Obama's rhetorical pivot toward deficit reduction and "the idea that you couldn't pass the first stimulus, you couldn't do more to expand the economy, without also bringing down the long-term debt," which led Obama to "straitjacket himself on this issue of worrying about the bond market."

Third, Konczal argues that "President Obama very much looked at how to attack the problem of unemployment as a budgetary phenomenon as opposed to using every lever at his disposal," including the Federal Reserve and the nationalized GSEs. Rather, he chose to "kick the can on housing, hoping unemployment would come down in two years."

Finally, Konczal says "the New Deal brought in kind of a new contract with government" that involved the creation of a safety net and a much stronger role for the federal government in the economy. He and Grunwald explore whether Obama's policies have the potential to create another paradigm shift that is "fundamentally a new kind of social reality, a political reality."

For more, including details on what was actually in the stimulus and how it reflected President Obama's broader agenda, check out the full video below:

 

Construction image via Shutterstock.com.

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Romney's Missing Link: What Caused Our Economic Crisis?

Sep 4, 2012Richard Kirsch

Mitt Romney wants voters to blame Barack Obama for mishandling the crisis, but he'd also like you to forget who caused it.

Mitt Romney wants voters to blame Barack Obama for mishandling the crisis, but he'd also like you to forget who caused it.

In his acceptance speech, Mitt Romney tried hard to communicate how much he empathizes with the economic squeeze on middle-class families. Last Thursday in Tampa, he talked about a symbolic worker who lost one good paying job and replaced it with “two jobs at nine bucks an hour and fewer benefits.” And twice he emphasized that a majority of Americans no longer believe that our children will do better than we have done.

But one thing was missing. Romney made absolutely no attempt to explain how families ended up in such precarious financial straits. Not a word referring to what happened before 2008, other than “this president can tell us it was someone else's fault.” For Mitt, the recession was a spontaneous event. It just happened; Obama inherited it and hasn’t been up to the task of fixing the crisis. So it’s time to give Romney, the job creator, a chance to fix it.

Romney knows that any reference to the recent past will evoke toxic memories of George W. Bush. The last thing he needs to do is to remind voters that the last Republican president triggered the nation’s economic crash. Instead, he wants Americans to start the script they are bringing into the voting booth this year on November 2008. It’s okay, he’s telling us, to accept our disappointment with President Obama, and give the businessman – who really does understand our plight and what it takes to create jobs – a try. After all, when things are this bad, what do you have to lose?

The missing link in Romney’s story is a huge invitation for President Obama to fill in the blanks. It provides an opportunity for him to convince hard-pressed Americans that they should stick with him through tough times. It is a story that President Obama knows how to tell powerfully. But it’s not one that he has been telling on the campaign trail.

President Obama is not starting the clock in November 2008 like Romney did. He is reminding people that they don’t want to “go back.” But the references in his campaign speeches to the Bush years are fleeting; most of his speeches are contrasts between his agenda and Romney-Ryan vision. He absolutely needs to make that contrast, but the problem for swing voters – those Americans who are feeling the intense financial pressure and loss of hope – is that they don’t have a way of understanding which candidate’s program will work better for them. These are people who aren’t ideological and who respond to personalities, which is why Obama has been attacking Romney’s Bain record so hard and why Romney is telling voters that you can like the president but still not vote for him.

What would help move these voters to embrace the Obama agenda and keep them from voting for Romney out of desperation is a story that links how we got into this financial mess with why the Obama agenda is the better way forward. That is what the most powerful political narratives do. The right has a broad and easily understood story about limited government and free enterprise. But the left has a powerful story too, and when he wants to, as he did last December 6th in Osawatomie, Kansas, the president tells it as well as anyone. Here are sections from Obama’s speech last year that lay out how we got into this mess, and in doing so, set up why we need to go forward with him:

Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments -- wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren't -- and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up….

When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. [Emphasis added.] America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country.…

Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. It leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them, that our elected representatives aren't looking out for the interests of most Americans.…

Finally, a strong middle class can only exist in an economy where everyone plays by the same rules, from Wall Street to Main Street.

In his acceptance speech this past Thursday, Mitt Romney left a huge hole to be filled in our economic narrative. Let’s hope that this Thursday in Charlotte, President Obama fills it as eloquently as he did in Kansas last December. By doing so, he will tell a powerful story that will show those swing voters that he’s not only a nice guy doing his best, but that he understands how we got into this mess and will keep working to get us out of it. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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