Was the Stimulus "Politically Disastrous"?

The Atlantic's Max Fisher says it is, calling it "hugely important but politically disastrous." But was the stimulus bill, known also as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, really "politically disastrous"?

Let's go to the polling. The most recent polling on the stimulus, from CNN in mid-January, found that just 42 percent of respondents still favored the stimulus while 56 percent opposed it -- not great numbers, but also probably not "politically disastrous" (but that's just, ya know, like, my opinion).

Digging deeper into the CNN numbers, the "disastrous[ness]" of the stimulus becomes even less clear, though. According to the survey, a substantial 58 percent majority of Americans believe that the stimulus either improved conditions (12 percent) or prevented conditions from becoming even worse (46 percent). Just 22 percent stated a belief that the stimulus had no effect, and an even smaller 19 percent responded that the stimulus made economic conditions worse.

Far from indicating that the stimulus is "politically disastrous," these numbers seem to indicate that a sizable majority of the American people realize that things could have been a lot worse had the stimulus not been passed by the President and the Democratic Congress. Again, this isn't to say that the stimulus is wildly popular, because it's clearly not. At the same time, it's hard to see how one could argue it to have been a political disaster for the Democrats.

My Take on Yesterday's White House Progressive Roundtable on the Economy

Yesterday, the White House invited a group of nine progressive bloggers, journalists and radio hosts to the West Wing for an on-the-record session with Jared Bernstein, chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden and a leader in the implementation of the stimulus, on the one-year anniversary of the Recovery Act.


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From left to right: Jonathan Singer of MyDD, Duncan Black of Eschaton, Oliver Willis of OliverWillis.com, Chris Hayes of The Nation, unknown administration staffer, Thom Hartmann of the Thom Hartmann Show, Matthew Yglesias of Think Progress, Erin from BlogHer, Tim Fernholz of the American Prospect, White House economist Jared Bernstein. Not pictured, John Aravosis of AmericaBlog. (Photo credit: John Aravosis)

The basic thrust of the event was to present a case for the efficacy of the Recovery Act as a part of the broader effort to convince the American people that the administration's efforts to restore the economy have been successful. To this end, Bernstein provided some stark numbers: While the economy had been contracting at an annualized rate of about 6%, last quarter saw GDP growth of nearly that amount (while conceding that this number isn't necessarily believed to be sustainable in the long term); and that while the economy was once losing 700,000 jobs per month, job losses have been nearly staved off, falling to just 20,000 per month over the past quarter.

The Recovery Act, Bernstein explained, was not only about bringing the economy away from the precipice, but was also about making meaningful investments to prepare the economy for the future. While year one was about bringing the economy off the brink, year two was about expansion (and specifically a type of expansion that ensures the middle class reaps benefits). This latter effort is focused on planting the seed money for priorities such as clean energy, a smart grid, health IT, universal broadband access and high speed rail -- just as earlier economic revolutions sparked by the development of the internet and a nation-wide rail system a century before that required government investment to leverage private capital, so too do the engines of future economic growth need private-public cooperation.

During the question-and-answer period, I asked Bernstein a question related to a series of posts I wrote here at MyDD that had gotten some traction in the Beltway press: Specifically the notion that progressive populism is beneficial on both a policy and political level. Bernstein responded first on the policy level, explaining that the administration was focused on addressing issues of income inequality -- which is now approaching levels unseen since 1928 -- ensuring that the middle class reaps any benefits from economic growth. On the political level, Bernstein was less receptive, saying that there's a difference between rhetoric and policy, while also noting that the President has expressed indignation. When I followed up by pointing to a quote from President Obama as to the effect that he "[does not] begrudge" the multi-million dollar compensation being received by some on Wall Street -- a quote I agreed that did not necessarily sum up all of the President's views, even if that's the way it was perceived by some -- Berstein sought to clarify that what the President was trying to say was that he, like other Americans, believes that people deserve to be compensated for their hard work. Pivoting again to policy rather than language, Berstein stressed the importance of restoring balance to the tax system, helping create better jobs, working to ensure that unions are able to organize fairly (though the Employee Free Choice Act), focusing on the middle class (he mentioned increased child tax credits, as well as tax credits for paying off college debts, paying for elder care, and other provisions), and, more broadly, reconnecting economic growth with the middle class.

I may write up some more thoughts on the meeting later today or tomorrow (I still have a good deal of notes from the pen-and-pad session, but I have to run to class now). But if you're itching to read more now, you can read others' accounts of the meeting from AmericaBlog, Eschaton, Tapped, Matt Yglesias, Matt Yglesias, and Oliver Willis.

Weekly Audit: More Jobs Please

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

One year after President Barack Obama secured passage of his critical economic stimulus package, the U.S. Senate is finally taking anther look at how to create jobs and repair the economy. These issues are more important than ever, but absurd Republican obstructionism and timid Democratic negotiation are once again threatening good public policy.

Not really bipartisan, is it?

As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, the Senate Finance Committee reached a “bipartisan” agreement to supposedly spur job creation last week. Republicans demanded billions in tax cuts for wealthy people, but kept on caterwauling about the federal budget deficit. In exchange for $80 billion to dedicate to jobs—an extremely modest figure given the state of the labor market—Republicans asked for hundreds of billions in giveaways for the rich. And that’s just to get the bill through the Finance Committee, much less the full Senate.

In a piece for Working In These Times, Michelle Chen notes that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the plug on the Finance Committee “compromise,” but stripped out a critical extension of unemployment benefits for laid-off workers in the process.

The Republican uproar over such modest job figures is an economically preposterous political ploy, and Democratic cave-ins to their demands are both bad politics and bad economics. Chen notes that 70% of Americans support a $100 billion jobs bill. And we know what kinds of programs help spur employment—many of them were passed in the stimulus bill last year and have saved millions of jobs.

Stopping the Bleeding

In an interview with Christopher Hayes of The Nation, Economic Policy Institute Fellow Josh Bivens explains that Obama’s economic stimulus package has worked well, effectively stopping the job hemorrhaging that the economy was experiencing immediately before Obama took office. Here’s Bivens:

“We haven’t returned to growth on employment … but the rate of contraction has slowed radically. Immediately before the Recovery Act is passed, we’re losing on the order of 700,000 jobs per month … In the past three months, we’re now down to something like between 50 and 75,000 jobs lost per month, on average … it really is a stark before and after.”

Racial inequality and the recession

The trouble is, the stimulus was only big enough to prevent the economy from getting much worse. It was not large enough to return the economy to serious job growth. And the brutal effects of the recession are not being shouldered equally. As LinkTV’s collaboration with ColorLines illustrates (video below), the Great Recession is hitting people of color much harder, but the story of racial inequality is being lost in stories about statistical economic recovery in the financial sector. The special profiles several families of color struggling to make ends meet in the worst recession since the Great Depression, which features Depression-era unemployment rates for African Americans.

“What we don’t see on TV are the [people] who never had a home or a good job to lose in the first place. These are the millions of poor people whose chance to cross the line into middle class has always been cut short by another kind of line, the color line,” says host Chris Rabb, founder of Afro-Netizen.

Rabb, ColorLines and LinkTV describe a social safety net that has been shredded by opportunistic politicians. Instead of focusing on ways to guarantee good jobs, politicians since the Reagan era have demonized black single mothers by exploiting racist stereotypes in an effort to justify slashing federal supports for the poor and unemployed. The result is a fundamentally unstable economy. Our society has weak demand for goods and services in good times, and that demand completely falls apart when economic conditions deteriorate. And while these socially destructive initiatives have been described as “pro-business,” the truth is, businesses don’t like societies where millions of people are impoverished. They don’t have any customers.

Predatory lending strikes again

The recession hasn’t exactly been a picnic for the middle class, either. In an article for Mother Jones, Andy Kroll profiles the mortgage mess that Ocwen Loan Servicing created for borrower Deanna Walters. Unlike millions of other borrowers dealing with mortgage headaches, Walters wasn’t actually behind on her payments. She was making payments regularly, but Ocwen was misplacing them, and charging her thousands of dollars in improper fees. Walters even paid the fees, but Ocwen eventually foreclosed on her home and sold it in an auction without even informing Walters.

As Kroll emphasizes, Ocwen’s antics aren’t unique. There is an entire class of companies known as mortgage servicers that specialize in deceiving and bullying borrowers out of their money. They often use illegal tactics, and as I note for AlterNet, have been systematically exploiting a badly designed foreclosure relief program from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Funding projects that will put people to work

As prominent economist Dean Baker argues for The American Prospect, there are dozens of productive programs that would put millions of people back to work—if they could just get the funding. The government could quickly and easily provide money to improve public transportation, develop open-source software, fund objective clinical drug trials and (my favorite) support writers and artists, whose work would subsequently be available for the public to enjoy for free.

Taxing financial speculation

The federal government can afford these programs right now, especially without any additional tax revenue. But if we’re really worried about the budget deficit, we can always turn to reasonable new sources for taxes. As Sarah Anderson details for Yes!, an obvious place to look is financial speculation. Since excessive and risky trading helped bring down the economy in 2008, a tax discouraging this behavior could make the economy stronger and reap as much as $175 billion a year for the public.

Our economy wouldn’t face troubles of the same order as those it must overcome today if so-called conservatives had not spend decades pursuing a radical agenda to shred the social safety net. The stimulus package has not spurred job growth to date because of cuts demanded by Congressional Republicans, nearly all of whom refused to vote for the bill anyway. Our economy needs a jobs bill now. It’d be nice if Republicans would show some interest in governing, but if they continue to refuse, Democrats must act on their own.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Attack of the Imaginary Budget Demons

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

On Feb. 1, President Barack Obama unveiled his 2011 budget proposal. While conservative pundits reacted with predictable, yet preposterous, wailing about the federal budget deficit, the short-term U.S. budget outlook is just fine. If anything, Obama’s budget doesn’t dedicate nearly enough funding to create jobs.

As John Nichols notes for The Nation, Obama budgets just $100 billion for jobs in fiscal 2011. The amount is nowhere near enough to make a significant dent in the epic unemployment rate. The government’s fiscal 2011 calendar begins in October of this year, and by that time, the stimulus package Obama pushed through in February of 2009 will have been exhausted, leaving the labor market without serious support from the federal government.

The free market isn’t going to take care of the jobs shortage on its own. While the unemployment rate fell from 10.0% to 9.7% during January, the “improvement” is really just a statistical mirage—the economy actually lost 20,000 jobs during the month.

If we had pushed through a bigger, or as Nichols notes, a better stimulus package in the first place, we might not be facing the same situation today. Part of the problem is that Obama redirected about $326 billion of the $787 billion bill away from direct job-creation efforts toward a set of tax cuts intended to appease Republican senators.

Tax cuts do not equal job growth

But as Art Levine emphasizes for Working In These Times, the $100 billion that Obama sets aside for job creation in 2011 appears once again to take the form of relatively inefficient tax cuts. Giving money to businesses, even small businesses, isn’t really going to make them start hiring unless there’s a real demand for what those businesses produce. When everybody is broke and out of work, that demand doesn’t exist, since people don’t have money to spend.

If the government wants to create jobs, it has to do it directly by hiring people to help rebuild the nation’s infrastructure through institutions such as schools, transportation and green energy. Just as important, the federal government can provide funding to state and local governments to make sure that jobs that serve our communities—teachers, cops, etc.—don’t disappear.

Sure, these things cost money. But the short-term budget deficit is nowhere near the current deficits of many European nations, or the deficits the U.S. ran during World War II. The budget deficit only matters to economics insofar as it raises concerns that the government will not be able to pay back its debt. But despite caterwauling from the right, investors just aren’t worried about a U.S. debt default. If they were, they would demand very high interest rates on Treasury bonds, and Treasury rates are at their lowest levels in decades.

If policymakers want to keep the jobs bill from running the deficit higher, they could always raise taxes on somebody. Financial speculation on Wall Street seems like a good place to start, but just about any tax on the wealthy would work fine. Rich people don’t get hammered by recessions. After all, they’re rich.

Overzealous tax cuts hurt communities

In a piece for AlterNet, David Sirota details the budgetary disaster that has already befallen the city of Colorado Springs, CO., a conservative enclave where anti-tax extremists have managed to slash just about every basic government service imaginable. Rather than impose some modest taxes on the wealthy, Colorado Springs is going to lay off cops and firefighters, let its parks go to waste, shut-down rec centers and museums and even allow its streetlights to go out. This is the Republican plan for fiscal responsibility.

But several state governments recognize that shredding the social fabric just isn’t a good idea. In Oregon, Sirota notes, voters just approved two ballot initiatives to raise taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals rather than allow their state to slide into social decay.

How to deal with a deficit

There are two ways to increase a budget deficit: You can either increase spending, or cut taxes. If you want to decrease the budget deficit, you can either cut spending, or raise taxes. As Kevin Drum notes for Mother Jones, Republicans both increased spending and cut taxes during the George W. Bush presidency. Now those same so-called fiscal conservatives are feigning outrage over the prospect of the government actually spending some money to put people back to work. These are not serious economic arguments—conservative politicians are just hoping to gut progressive policy priorities.

But while the attacks don’t hold any water, conservative media outlets are latching on to them, and Obama isn’t pushing back.

What caused the current crisis

Writing for The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner notes Obama’s recent support for a proposal from right-wing deficit hawks to create a commission to evaluate the causes of our so-called fiscal crisis. But we already know what put us in the current fiscal situation: Rising health care costs, a brutal recession, and the Bush era. The commission is being pushed by radical conservatives for a reason—it’s part of an effort to gut Social Security. It’s bad economics, bad public policy and it badly misreads the real source of public discontent. Kuttner explains:

“Public concern about deficits is really a proxy for broader unease that government is not delivering enough practical help . . . . The president should be helping citizens sort this out, not caving in to the fear-mongers.”

Fortunately, as Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, Senate leaders appear committed to passing at least some kind of legislation to help put people back to work.

Whatever right-wing pundits say, the U.S. fiscal crisis remains a totally theoretical problem. Someday, if the U.S. budget does not come down, it is conceivable that investors would be reluctant to purchase U.S. debt. For now, that is simply not the case. But the crisis in the job market is very real and requires direct action. Put simply, the deficit is no excuse for inaction.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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