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My Side of an LA Times Debate with Ed Leamer, Part I

8/28/09 6:08 PM

Grasping Reality with Both Hands The Semi-Daily Journal of Economist Brad DeLong: A Fair, Balanced, Reality-Based, and More than Two-Handed Look at the World J. Bradford DeLong, Department of Economics, U.C. Berkeley #3880, Berkeley, CA 94720-3880; 925 708 0467; Weblog Home Page Weblog Archives Econ 115: 20th Century Economic History Econ 211: Economic History Seminar Economics Should-Reads Political Economy Should-Reads Politics and Elections Should-Reads Hot on Google Blogsearch Hot on Google Brad DeLong's Egregious Moderation August 21, 2009

My Side of an LA Times Debate with Ed Leamer, Part I Part I: Is Obama's stimulus working? -- DUST-UP: Is Obama's stimulus working? Edward E. Leamer says we were overdue for a recession. Brad DeLong says the Obama administration got the most it could. Keynes: right during the Great Depression, right now. Counterpoint: Brad DeLong Back at the start of October, when it became clear that the recession was not going to be a mild "rolling readjustment" and when it began to become clear just how frozen the financial system was and how much damage it was about to do to investment and spending, economists began talking about how it would be a very good thing to pass a fiscal stimulus. Then the idea was to boost the federal deficit by about $200 billion in fiscal year 2009 (i.e., October 2009 to September 2010), $200 billion in fiscal 2010 and $100 billion in 2011 to put more people to work and cushion the rise in unemployment. The idea was to spend $500 billion in total, to be divided, say, with $125 billion in aid to states so they would not have to cut programs and throw yet more people out of work; $125 billion in tax cuts to relatively poor people feeling liquidity constrained who would spend and not save the additional cash; $125 billion to shovel-ready and near-shovel-ready infrastructure projects; and $125 billion for Congress to distribute to projects individual representatives regarded as worthy because assembling legislative coalitions to pass anything is very hard. By the end of December, it was clear that the recession was going to be at least twice as big as the early October forecasts. Economists lamented the failure to pass a stimulus at the start of October, and upped estimates of the appropriate amount of stimulus to around $1 trillion -- with $250 billion in aid to states, $250 billion in tax cuts to people strapped for cash who would spend the money, $250 billion in infrastructure and $250 billion in projects individual members willing to join the coalition to pass the thing found worthy.

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My Side of an LA Times Debate with Ed Leamer, Part I

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coalition to pass the thing found worthy. Turns out that we have (a) a recession not twice but three times as large as forecast in October, (b) a stimulus package of about $600 billion in real and semi-real stimulus, and (c) a stimulus package passed in February rather than October, four months later than it should have been. Democratic stalwarts say that it is in part Obama's fault. The strategy of the Obama administration -in the stimulus, in climate change, in healthcare, in national security -- appears to be to decide what good policy is, take two giant steps toward whatever position the Republicans are setting out, extend the hand of nonpartisan technocratic governance and say "we should come to an agreement," and then get kicked in the face because Republicans don't have a policy but rather an attitude. They opposed everything President Clinton proposed in his first term no matter what it was and won the 1994 midterm election elections, and they hope to repeat that. Reality-based Republicans are quiet: They know full well that had John McCain won the election in November, he would have proposed and Congress would have passed a similarly sized stimulus package (fewer spending increases, fewer tax cuts for the middle class and more tax cuts for the rich -- they are Republicans, after all). Fantasyland Republican stalwarts talk about how the stimulus package is ruining the country. And the Obama administration points out that it could not have passed anything at all without the votes of several moderate Republican senators and a few Democrats, and that the $787-billion stimulus was the biggest and most effective that those senators would ever vote for. Thus, you are right, Ed, when you say that the stimulus was in large part a wasted opportunity. It could have been much more effective had it been better designed -- better timed, better targeted and better sized. But you're wrong when you hint that the stimulus was not worth doing. Mark Zandi, a former senior McCain advisor and as good an economic forecaster as you, thinks that the stimulus package boosted the rate of GDP growth by 3% in the spring and by another 4% this summer -- meaning that the $80 billion in stimulus spending in this third quarter of 2009 is boosting production and incomes by $65 billion. Because the $80 billion is being used to buy useful goods and services that in normal times have a value of about $60 billion, the stimulus package looks like a clear win: The government is losing $20 billion by being a hurried and hasty shopper, but we as a country are gaining $65 billion in incomes and production. That is a benefit-cost ratio better than 3 to 1. And I believe, Ed, that you're way, way wrong -- lost in the gamma quadrant with Capt. Janeway and the starship Voyager wrong -- when you say that this recession is what the economy needed. We need sectoral readjustment: to move workers out of industries such as finance, construction and real estate transactions and into (hopefully) growing industries such as healthcare and import-competing manufacturing. But we don't need a big recession and unemployment to spike to 10%. This retards and freezes the needed rolling process of sector readjustment. This is an old, old argument. Back in the Great Depression, Joseph Schumpeter argued that the economy was undergoing a "healthy cold douche" and that there was "a presumption against" the government lifting a finger via expansionary monetary policy or New Deals to try to keep things from getting worse. John Maynard Keynes disagreed, writing: "Some austere and puritanical souls regard [the Depression] both as an inevitable and a desirable nemesis on so much 'overexpansion,' as they call it. ... It would, they feel, be a victory for the mammon of unrighteousness if ... prosperity

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My Side of an LA Times Debate with Ed Leamer, Part I

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as they call it. ... It would, they feel, be a victory for the mammon of unrighteousness if ... prosperity was not subsequently balanced by universal bankruptcy. We need, they say, what they politely call a 'prolonged liquidation' to put us right. ... "I do not take this view. ... And I do not understand how universal bankruptcy can do any good or bring us nearer to prosperity." I think Keynes was a smart guy: right then, and right now. rated 3.71 by 7 people [?] You might like:

Is Obama's stimulus working? (Chicago Tribune) Why I'm Unconvinced by Calls for a Second Stimulus Package (SeekingAlpha US Market Stocks) 2 more recommended posts Âť Brad DeLong on August 21, 2009 at 04:50 PM in Economics, Economics: Fiscal Policy | Permalink TrackBack TrackBack URL for this entry: Listed below are links to weblogs that reference My Side of an LA Times Debate with Ed Leamer, Part I:

Comments You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post. I beg to disagree with this statement: "...the Obama administration got the most it could." The administration could have done better than what it did. Ask any progressive economist. [You miss the point. The Obama administration needed 60 senators. Progressive economists are not clued in to how to do a whip count in the U.S. Senate.] Posted by: Sundar Srinivasan | August 22, 2009 at 11:41 AM I think you miss the real point: the Obama administration didn't need 60 senators. Given the way the Senate rules *actually* work, passing a good bill in the House and then forcing the Senate to stay in session and debate it until they pass it requires 50 Senators. And the number of months delay would have been about the same as what we actually got. :-P The filibuster is a delaying tactic (although it can cause about a month's delay). It is not a supermajority rule. Harry Reid seems to have forgotten this, and this is the real problem. Posted by: Nathanael Nerode | August 23, 2009 at 07:13 PM

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My Side of an LA Times Debate with Ed Leamer, Part I

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My Side of an LA Times Debate with Ed Leamer, Part I  

Two-Handed Look at the World Brad DeLong's Egregious Moderation J. Bradford DeLong, Department of Economics, U.C. Berkeley #3880, Berkeley,...

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