Robert Kuttner

Obama's Inner Truman

The president we elected in November 2008 gave a terrific speech on Labor Day in Detroit. It's been a long time coming. This president's trademark seems to be that he doesn't find his inner fighter until his back is to the wall (along with ours). Obama's approval rating, at just 40 percent according to Gallup, 44 percent according to a new Wall Street Journal -NBC poll, is his lowest ever -- putting Obama in one-term-president territory. A recent Rasmussen poll has him losing to Texas Governor Rick Perry, 44-41. The politics of bipartisan conciliation have been an utter failure, as even Obama's political advisers must now have admitted. The Labor Day speech also gave Obama a chance to try out some themes for his bigger Thursday address, and the reception was warm. Several things about this speech were remarkable, but three in particular stand out. First, he embraced the labor movement, explicitly and without reservation. Conventional wisdom says support for organized labor is dropping...

More Bad News on Jobs -- Will Obama Keep His?

The nation’s employers added no new jobs in August, according to the Labor Department, adding pressure on President Obama to deliver a far-reaching speech next Thursday on a strategy to deal with persistent joblessness. However, all of the preliminary indicators, including White House leaks, suggest a very modest speech filled with cautious proposals that cost little if any new money and appeal to the prejudices of the business elite. According to these leaks and other published reports, the plan will be heavy on items that Republicans might support, such as a payroll tax cut and a tax credit for businesses that create new jobs, as well as items that cost no new money, such as a national program modeled on Georgia Works, which induces jobless workers to take temporary private-sector jobs for no wages, if they include training. (This morning, the AFL-CIO sent a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, pointing out that this violates the federal minimum-wage law.) In the August report,...

How Not to Solve the Jobs Problem

There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that President Obama is planning to include in his eagerly anticipated post-Labor Day jobs speech a variation on a truly lame state program called Georgia Works. The program, begun in 2003, pays people on unemployment insurance a small additional stipend, currently $240, if they agree to work 24 hours a week, for no wages, for a private employer while unemployed, in exchange for some form of training by the employer. The program was actually started by a Democratic state labor commissioner, Mike Thurmond, and continued by his Republican successor. Thurmond went on to run as the Democratic nominee for the Senate in 2010, and lose. Former President Bill Clinton is a big booster of the program, and Obama gave it favorable mention at one of his recent town hall meetings in Iowa: The president said: "We’ve got to rethink how we do unemployment insurance. There is a smart program in Georgia. What they do is they say, all right, instead of you just...

Exit Bloom, Enter Krueger

While we mourn the exit of Ron Bloom as the administration's point man on manufacturing (who was not permitted to utter the dread words "industrial policy"), we can welcome the appointment of Alan Krueger to chair the Council of Economic Advisers. Given the administration's penchant for naming Wall Street people to key economic posts, Krueger is rather better than we dared hope for. He is thoroughly mainstream in all his credentials, coming from a senior post at Princeton. But with two notable differences: First, he was editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives from 1996 to 2002. This is the most heterodox of the major economic journals, hospitable to dissenting viewpoints. Second, Krueger is a labor economist, not a macro-economist. One of his most important books was a study co-written with David Card titled Myth and Measurement (1995), published when he was in his mid-thirties, challenging one of the most cherished sacred cows of conventional economics -- the idea that...

New Democrats Keep Getting It Wrong

How to address the jobs crisis? President Obama has promised a major speech after Labor Day. Bill Galston, one of the premier New Democrat intellectuals, has a piece in The New Republic , ghostwriting what he thinks the president should say. Galston is a very smart academic and a kind person, but this proposed speech epitomizes how New Democrats get politics and economics fatally wrong. Galston would have Obama begin: In recent decades we've become addicted to consumption at the expense of production. But we can't indefinitely consume more than we produce... . now it's time to focus on the investments and innovations needed to make [foreign] countries into markets for what we make. This is wrong on two counts. "We" haven't become addicted to consumption. Real incomes and outlays for most people have been stagnant. It's the top who have become addicted to gluttony. Second, domestic production has gotten clobbered because the rules of trade and taxation have favored a shift to...

Bernanke's Disappointing Speech at Jackson Hole (But the stock market loved it.)

Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke's closely watched annual speech at this morning's session of the Fed's Jackson Hole Conference is a good illustration of why Thomas Carlyle referred to economics as the dismal science. Chairman Bernanke was doubly dismal , not just as an economic pessimist but as a political coward. Bernanke's assessment of the economy was typically qualified with on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that, to reassure financial markets. But worse, it was gutless in terms of the proposed solutions to the crisis. On the one hand, said Bernanke, manufacturing is up 15 percent, households are paying off debts, and the banking system has not gone off a cliff. On the other hand, unemployment is stuck on a plateau of over 9 percent, the housing mess is dragging down the economy, and despite low interest rates for the elite, most borrowers face tight credit conditions. "Financial pressures on financial institutions and households have contributed, in turn, to greater...

Say It Ain't So, Joe

When Joe Nocera was promoted from The New York Times business section to an op-ed column of his own, I was ambivalent. On the one hand, this rather neo-liberal writer has been somewhat radicalized by the financial crisis. He had been doing good work in the business section, and it was good to have a relatively liberal writer expert in finance joining the lonely voice of Paul Krugman on the op-ed page. Nocera, seemingly, had come a long way since his days as a naive celebrant of the allegedly democratized investment economy, epitomized in a truly dreadful 1995 book whose subtitle says it all: "A Piece of the Action: How the Middle Class Joined the Moneyed Class." If only. On the other hand, several financial crises later, Nocera still has a neo-liberal soul. A few columns ago, Nocera wrote a piece reflecting on his four months as the Times ' newest regular on the op-ed page. "In the four months since I began writing an Op-Ed column, the thing that has most surprised me is how darned...

Bad Economic News: Will It Discredit Austerity Economics?

The Congressional Budget Office is out with a report that should give pause to sponsors of austerity economics and opponents of repealing the Bush tax cuts. The report , released today, is the CBO's semi-annual update of economic and budget conditions. Among key projections: "[T]he pace of the recovery has been slow, and the economy remains in a severe slump. Recent turmoil in financial markets in the United States and overseas threatens to prolong the slump." As a consequence, both projected unemployment and economic growth rates will be worse than previously forecast. Unemployment will still be well above 8 percent at the time of next year's election. Growth will be sluggish through 2012. The non-partisan experts at CBO warn, "Under current law, federal tax and spending policies will impose substantial restraint on the economy in 2013." In other words, in the short run the policies of cutting the budget will have exactly the opposite effect from the ones the sponsors intend. They...

She's In!

Elizabeth Warren is officially running for the Senate seat held by Scott Brown. There are several reasons to cheer this. For starters, she is the most compelling new progressive leader to come along in many a year. At a time with few genuine public figures who command admiration, Warren is one. She knows how to play inside politics brilliantly, but is also a figure of rare integrity on rallying the spirits of a grass roots progressive base. As chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, Warren was the de facto leader of the loyal opposition to the Treasury and White House team advising Barack Obama on the financial crisis. Their view: do whatever it took to prop up the big banks, however rotten. Her view: do an honest assessment of their balance sheets, use bankruptcies where necessary, and come out the other side with strong, independent institutions. Their view has prolonged the recession. Hers would have jump-started a recovery. Despite crossing swords with Geithner for two years,...

Good News, Bad News on the Budget Deal

As progressives sift through the entrails of the budget deal, there is some guarded optimism on two grounds. First, despite claims by House Speaker John Boehner, it turns out tax increases, or other revenue enhancements such as loophole closings, would count towards the $1.5 trillion dollars in mandatory deficit reduction to which Congress and President Obama agreed. The details are mind-numbingly technical, but for fiscal masochists, the Center on Budget and Priorities has a good explanation . Also, the Bush tax cuts automatically expire at the end of 2012. So all Congress and the president have to do is . . . nothing, and $830 billion more in revenue pours into the Treasury’s coffers, presumably reducing the need for spending cuts dollar for dollar. Actually, that figure just counts the money from extending the cuts for the wealthiest two percent. Congress would have to act affirmatively in order to prevent tax increases from hitting the bottom 98 percent, which it would surely do...

The Economic Maginot Line

In the late 1920s, the French minister of war was one Andre Maginot, a World War I veteran with a handlebar mustache and a limp. M. Maginot, learning the lessons of the last war, had the idea that if France could just build an impregnable fortification on its eastern frontiers, Germany could never again invade it. So between 1930 and 1940, at a cost of 3 billion francs, France constructed the unfortunate Maginot Line. When Hitler decided to invade, his Wermacht simply went around it, via Luxembourg and Belgium. The Super-Committee created by the great deficit-reduction deal is the economic equivalent of a Maginot Line. It is required to defend and fortify the economy by coming up with at least $1.2 billion in budget cuts. If it fails to agree, then an automatic trigger mechanism kicks in, cutting $1.5 trillion. But like the Maginot Line, the committee is pointed in the wrong direction. Its laborious construction is a waste and a diversion. The real threat to the economy is coming from...

America on the Brink

The stakes of our leaders' surreal obsession with deficits just got a lot higher. The economy could tip from stagnation into a real depression. As it dawned on Wall Street that austerity would not in fact help the real economy, panic selling ensued. The swooning stock market, in turn, creates one more source of belt-tightening that pushes us closer to an abyss. As the value of savings and the earnings on investments plummet, consumers are even less likely to go out and by products. Businesses are even less likely to expand or to take on new employees. And so the whole downward slide feeds on itself. The imagined savings from deficit reduction will be more than wiped out by slower than projected growth, as this recent analysis from John McDermott from the blog Alphaville shows. If GDP growth is even half a percent lower less than the budget-cutters assumed, nearly all of the projected budget savings vanish. And the belt-tightening in the budget deal is very likely to push the economy...

Pretty Poor -- and All Too Standard

In the financial crisis, the signature of the credit-rating companies has been that they are a day late and a dollar short. In this case, $2 trillion. S&P made a $2 trillion error in the computations that were the basis of its rationale for downgrading Treasury securities. But that was petty cash compared to what credit-rating companies cost the world economy when they corruptly took money from issuers of subprime bonds to help them come up with a formula to justify a triple-A rating. The entire financial collapse is on the conscience of the credit-raters. If they had the most elementary competence, they would have known that a bond backed by junk had to be junk itself. So where do these guys get off downgrading the debt of the United States? And why do it after a deal was struck to avoid default rather than before? All during the period when Republicans were playing chicken with default, markets were unfazed. Serious people knew that, one way or another, the United States would...

The Markets' Verdict on the Debt Deal

Let's take a moment to recall the logic of the deficit hysteria and the related deal just signed by President Obama. The economy, supposedly, was mired in stagnation because of a lack of "confidence." That confidence gap, in turn, reflected anxiety about the escalating deficits and national debt. Deal with the debt, and businesses would invest; consumers would spend, and recovery would return. As some of us have been writing almost since the Obama administration began, that view of the crisis was always absurd. With Americans out of work, and out trillions of dollars in home equity, consumers weren't spending. Business was neither hiring nor investing. The deeper deficit reflected the reduced revenues of a deep recession, but government was laying off workers, too. Very low interest rates suggested that no serious person was worried about inflation -- the bigger worry was deflation. Well, now we have the grim proof. The very day Obama signed the deficit deal, the Dow lost 266 points...

On the Corner of 14th and Wall Street

A number of commentators have asked: Why did the president categorically reject recourse to the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling, even as a bargaining chit, when that rejection forced Democrats to accept a deal mostly on Republican terms? The New York Times ' Joe Nocera writes : My own view is that Obama should have played the 14th Amendment card, using its language about "the validity of the public debt" to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling....Inexplicably, he chose instead a course of action that maximized the leverage of the Republican extremists." Well, let me explain the inexplicable. Obama, speaking a week before the final deal, said that his lawyers advised him that the 14th Amendment did not apply. In fact, a lot of very well-informed constitutional scholars say otherwise. But this is not the real story. The main reason Obama rejected taking the 14th was that his Wall Street cronies, from Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on down, were...

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