NEW YORK – Defeat in the Massachusetts senatorial election has deprived America’s Democrats of the 60 votes needed to pass health-care reform and other legislation, and it has changed American politics – at least for the moment. But what does that vote say about American voters and the economy?
It does not herald a shift to the right, as some pundits suggest. Rather, the message it sends is the same as that sent by voters to President Bill Clinton 17 years ago: “It’s the economy, stupid!” and “Jobs, jobs, jobs.” Indeed, on the other side of the United States from Massachusetts, voters in Oregon passed a referendum supporting a tax increase.
The US economy is in a mess – even if growth has resumed, and bankers are once again receiving huge bonuses. More than one out of six Americans who would like a full-time job cannot get one; and 40% of the unemployed have been out of a job for more than six months.
As Europe learned long ago, hardship increases with the length of unemployment, as job skills and prospects deteriorate and savings gets wiped out.
The 2.5-3.5 million foreclosures expected this year will exceed those of 2009, and the year began with what is expected to be the first of many large commercial real-estate bankruptcies.
Even the Congressional Budget Office is predicting that it will be the middle of the decade before unemployment returns to more normal levels, as America experiences its own version of “Japanese malaise.”
As I wrote in my new book Freefall, President Barack Obama took a big gamble at the start of his administration.
Instead of the marked change that his campaign had promised, he kept many of the same officials and maintained the same “trickle down” strategy to confront the financial crisis.
Providing enough money to the banks was, his team seemed to say, the best way to help ordinary homeowners and workers.
When America reformed its welfare programs for the poor under Clinton, it put conditions on recipients: they had to look for a job or enroll in training programs.
But when the banks received welfare benefits, no conditions were imposed on them. Had Obama’s attempt at muddling through worked, it would have avoided some big philosophical battles. But it didn’t work, and it has been a long time since popular antipathy to banks has been so great.
Obama wanted to bridge the divides among Americans that George W. Bush had opened. But now those divides are wider. His attempts to please everyone, so evident in the last few weeks, are likely to mollify no one.
Deficit hawks – especially among the bankers who laid low during the government bailout of their institutions, but who have now come back with a vengeance – use worries about the growing deficit to justify cutbacks in spending.
But these views on how to run the economy are no better than the bankers’ approach to running their own institutions.
Cutting spending now will weaken the economy. So long as spending goes to investments yielding a modest return of 6%, the long-term debt will be reduced, even as the short-term deficit increases, owing to the higher tax revenues generated by the larger output in the short run and the more rapid growth in the long run.
Trying to “square the circle” between the need to stimulate the economy and please the deficit hawks, Obama has proposed deficit reductions that, while alienating liberal democrats, were too small to please the hawks.
Other gestures to help struggling middle-class Americans may show where his heart is, but are too small to make a meaningful difference.
Three things can make a difference: a second stimulus, stemming the tide of housing foreclosures by addressing the roughly 25% of mortgages that are worth more than the value the house, and reshaping our financial system to rein in the banks.
There was a moment a year ago when Obama, with his enormous political capital, might have been able to achieve this ambitious agenda, and, building on these successes, go on to deal with America’s other problems.
But anger about the bailout, confusion between the bailout (which didn’t restart lending, as it was supposed to do) and the stimulus (which did what it was supposed to do, but was too small), and disappointment about mounting job losses, has vastly circumscribed his room for maneuver.
Indeed, there is even skepticism about whether Obama will be able to push through his welcome and long overdue efforts to curtail the too-big-to-fail banks and their reckless risk-taking.
And, without that, more likely than not, the economy will face another crisis in the not-too-distant future.
Most Americans, however, are focused on today’s downturn, not tomorrow’s. Growth over the next two years is expected to be so anemic that it will barely be able to create enough jobs for new entrants to the labor force, let alone to return unemployment to an acceptable level.
Unfettered markets may have caused this calamity, and markets by themselves won’t get us out, at least any time soon.
Government action is needed, and that will require effective and forceful political leadership.
Joseph E. Stiglitz, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics, served as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from 1995 to 1997. He is the author of the recently published bestseller, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy.