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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

January 26, 2010 at 9:50 AM

President Obama channels the ghost of Herbert Hoover

Top of the News: Herbert Hoover got a bad rap from history. He entered office on a wave of hope and optimism, a progressive Republican, one of the smartest men ever elected president. We know how things turned out. He was another president who obsessed about budgets and spending freezes (FDR promised a balanced budget, too, and thankfully fibbed).

President Obama has entered Hoover Country with his impending spending freeze. UC Berkley economist Brad DeLong calls it “a perfect example of fundamental unseriousness: Rather than make proposals that will actually tackle the long-term deficit – either through future tax increases triggered by excessive deficits or through future entitlement spending caps triggered by excessive deficits – come up with a proposal that does short-term harm to the economy without tackling the deficit in any serious and significant way.”

The Baseline Scenario likens it to later Clintonism, where Bill tried to co-opt Republican programs and ended up with little to show for it.

Many of the programs Obama would target, such as ag subsidies, have powerful backers in Congress — so forget that. The low-hanging fruit doesn’t have big corporate or congressional protectors. Thus, programs that could actually create more jobs, such as transit and Amtrak will once again be hurt. Education and research will also suffer. Bloated military spending, inexplicably, is off limits.

Clintonesque small-ball won’t do much to help a middle class eroded by decades of complex changes in public policy and the world economy. Universal health care — Medicare for all — would have removed a huge burden and the largest cause of personal bankruptcies. So, too, would major infrastructure projects, especially building, rather than studying, high-speed rail, modernizing the electric grid and retrofitting suburbia for a high-cost energy future. So would new trade policies to improve U.S. export markets. And anti-trust enforcement to prevent mergers that kill jobs and eliminate competition.

Obama’s plan contains none of that. He’s unwilling to ask the rich to pay taxes at a level seen even in the 1990s. He’s also apparently falling for the talking point about U.S. corporate taxes being higher than the OECD average — when in reality most major companies use dodges to avoid paying taxes at all.

Obama took over the Bush bank bailout and failed to act quickly to demand accountability and reform. He accepted a stimulus too small to fill the GDP hole the recession was leaving — economists warned him — and it was badly targeted to invest in the future.

The deficit is not the biggest economic issue — this is a partisan meme abetted by an ignorant and corporate-controlled media, including Rupert Murdoch’s increasingly partisan Wall Street Journal. The red ink certainly never mattered under George W. Bush. Without a robust stimulus, investment in people and infrastructure, and tax and trade reform, the American economy can’t repay the deficit, no matter this cosmetic freeze. Meanwhile, a double-dip recession remains a real possibility and sustained high joblessness a reality.

He told Diane Sawyer he’s rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president. So far, sadly, he’s on track to be a mediocre one-term president.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Bill Gates is tweeting

‘Sharing cool things I’m learning…’

We’re all a Twitter

Comments | More in Bailout, Politics and the economy

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