Sat Aug 18, 2012, 12:52 AM
Pirate Smile (27,567 posts)
"The New New Deal" - Obama took office after financial earthquake, but before economic tsunami hit
The New New Deal
President Obama’s stimulus has been an astonishing, and unrecognized, success, argues Michael Grunwald.
Michael Grunwald, a Time magazine correspondent, this week publishes The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, a gripping account of President Obama’s stimulus bill. Grunwald writes that the stimulus has transformed America—and American politics—in ways that we have failed to recognize. I interviewed him by email about the book.
Slate: What possessed you to write this book?
Grunwald: I fled Washington for the public policy paradise of South Beach while writing my last book, about the Everglades and Florida, so in 2010 I was only vaguely aware of the Beltway consensus that President Obama’s stimulus was an $800 billion joke. But because I write a lot about the environment, I was very aware that the stimulus included about $90 billion for clean energy, which was astonishing, because the feds were only spending a few billion dollars a year before. The stimulus was pouring unprecedented funding into wind, solar, and other renewables; energy efficiency in every form; advanced biofuels; electric vehicles; a smarter grid; cleaner coal; and factories to make all that green stuff in the U.S.
It was clearly a huge deal. And it got me curious about what else was in the stimulus. I remember doing some dogged investigative reporting—OK, a Google search—and learning that the stimulus also launched Race to the Top, which was a real a-ha moment. I knew Race to the Top was a huge deal in the education reform world, but I had no idea it was a stimulus program. It quickly became obvious that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the formal name of the stimulus) was also a huge deal for health care, transportation, scientific research, and the safety net as well as the flailing economy. It was about Reinvestment as well as Recovery, and it was hidden in plain view.
In what ways has the stimulus been like and unlike Roosevelt’s New Deal?
The stimulus isn’t the New Deal. But they were both massive exercises in government activism in response to epic economic collapses. And they were both about change. The stimulus was the purest distillation of what Obama meant by “Change we can believe in.” And it’s the essence of Obama-ism—not only the policies, which came straight from his campaign agenda, but his approach to getting them into law, which was more pragmatic and political and messy than his hopey-changey rhetoric had led people to believe. So there was plenty of New, and plenty of Deal.
The Obama team thought a lot about the New Deal while they were putting the stimulus together, but times have changed since the New Deal. The Hoover Dam put 5,000 Americans to work with shovels. A comparable project today would only require a few hundred workers with heavy equipment. Christy Romer, the Depression scholar who led Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, kept reminding colleagues that the Roosevelt administration hired 4 million Americans in the winter of 1934. At one point she started calling Cabinet departments to see how many employees they could hire with unlimited funds: They’d say oh, a lot, maybe 20,000! So the stimulus didn’t create giant new alphabet agencies like the WPA or CCC. It only created one new agency, a tiny incubator for cutting-edge energy research called ARPA-E.
People forget that the CCC herded unemployed urban youths into militarized rural work camps—often known as “concentration camps,” before that phrase became uncool—for less than a dollar a day. That kind of thing wouldn’t fly today. The New Deal basically created Big Government, but it’s still here. There was no need to re-create Big Government, and no political desire to expand Big Government.
So the stimulus didn’t establish new entitlements like Social Security or deposit insurance, or new federal responsibilities like securities regulation or labor relations, or new workfare programs for the creative class like the Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, or Federal Writers Project. The New Deal was a barrage of contradictory initiatives enacted and adjusted over several years. The stimulus was one piece of legislation cobbled together and squeezed through Congress during Obama’s first month in office. The New Deal was a journey, an era, an aura. The Recovery Act was just a bill on Capitol Hill.
But it was a really big bill, 50 percent bigger than the entire New Deal in constant dollars. It included some New Deal-ish programs, like a $7 billion initiative to bring broadband to underserved areas, a modern version of FDR’s rural electrification. It included another $7 billion in incentives for states to modernize and expand the New Deal-era unemployment insurance system, which was created for a workforce of male breadwinners. Its aid to victims of the Great Recession lifted at least 7 million people out of poverty and made 32 million poor people less poor. It built power lines and sewage plants and fire stations, just like the New Deal. It refurbished a lot of New Deal parks and train stations and libraries. And Republicans have trashed the stimulus as a radical exercise in socialism, just as some Republicans—but not all Republicans—trashed the New Deal.
The most significant difference is that the New Deal was wildly popular, while the stimulus has been a political bust. There are many reasons for this, but the most important is that FDR launched the New Deal after the U.S. had suffered through more than two years of depression under Hoover, while Obama launched the stimulus when the economy was nowhere near rock bottom. Everyone knew about the financial earthquake, but the economic tsunami hadn’t yet hit the shore.
People forget that after Lehman Bros. collapsed in September 2008, Democrats couldn’t even get 60 votes in the Senate for a $50 billion stimulus; in fact, two Democrats voted against it. The $800 billion stimulus was over four times larger than Obama’s campaign proposal in October 2008. It was over twice as large as the package that 387 liberal economists urged Congress to pass in late November. It’s only in retrospect that $800 billion seems wimpy. And Obama couldn’t have gotten a dime more through the Senate. The three moderate Republicans who voted yes—Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter—all insisted they wouldn’t support anything over $800 billion. So did at least a half-dozen centrist Democrats, like Mark Begich of Alaska, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota wanted a bigger stimulus, but he was in the room during the negotiations, and he told me: There was absolutely no way to make that happen.
Some progressives admit that Obama couldn’t have gotten more stimulus during his first month in office but complain that he never pushed for more stimulus after the Recovery Act passed. That’s just wrong. He never stopped pushing behind the scenes and ended up getting another $700 billion worth in 2009 and 2010, even though Republicans were trying to obstruct him at every turn. They were even marching in lockstep against unemployment benefits and small-business tax cuts that they had always supported in the past. So Obama did well to get what he got.
That said, I realize The New New Deal tells a story that, for the most part, Obama lovers are going to like and Obama haters on the left and the right are going to hate. I’d say that readers shouldn’t see this as partisan hackwork because I’m not a partisan hack. I’ve been a reporter for 20 years, and my reporting is accurate. In case people are curious, I’m a registered independent, socially liberal, otherwise pretty unpredictable. I voted for Obama in 2008, but I voted for Charlie Crist for governor over a generic Democrat in 2006, back when he was a rising Republican star. I do tend to be a contrarian. I think I was the first non-oil-stooge to write that the BP spill was not that awful an ecological disaster. But I was just following my reporting; I know a lot of scientists in Louisiana, and I got to see a lot of persuasive data. I feel the same way about the stimulus; the data tell a very different story than the prevailing narrative.
I don’t think my book portrays the Republicans as “vicious,” but I do show—thanks to a lot of in-depth interviews with GOP sources—how they plotted to obstruct Obama before he even took office. I show how the stimulus was chock full of stuff they claimed to support until Jan. 20, 2009—not just things like health IT and the smart grid and energy efficiency and scientific research, but the very idea of Keynesian stimulus. Every presidential candidate in 2008 proposed a stimulus package, and Mitt Romney’s was the largest. So I do spend a fair amount of time chronicling Republican stimulus hypocrisies. (Readers might enjoy the backstory of Sen. Judd Gregg’s short-lived nomination to be Obama’s commerce secretary.) In general, I’d have to say my reporting backs up the Norm Ornstein-Thomas Mann thesis that the Republicans have gone off the policy deep end—denying global warming, denying Keynesian economics (except when it comes to business tax cuts and defense spending!), trashing Obama’s government takeover of health care and also his Medicare cuts, drumming stimulus supporters like Crist and Specter out of the party. Then again, one Republican who comes off pretty well is Mark Sanford, a rare voice of honest small-government conservatism in the party. (He also says some pretty surprising things about his trip down the Appalachian Trail.)
I think there ought to be a great debate about the stimulus and its interventions in various sectors of the economy. But we haven’t had that debate. We’ve debated a bizarro-world stimulus that does not exist. And I think that’s true about Obama, too. I don’t think he comes across as “brilliant.” I think he comes across as a pragmatic left-of-center technocrat who wasn’t interested in pursuing lost causes, but basically tried to do what he said he would do during the campaign. He wasn’t a policy entrepreneur with new policy ideas, but he did his best to get 60 votes for old policy ideas that made sense, and then pushed his administration to put them into action as cleanly and competently as possible. And I did a lot of reporting in the bowels of the bureaucracy and around the country to show how change has been playing out.
I tried to tell the story as fairly and honestly as I could. But I didn’t try to be balanced for the sake of balance. When politicians were full of shit, I tried to point that out.
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"The New New Deal" - Obama took office after financial earthquake, but before economic tsunami hit (Original post)
|Pirate Smile||Aug 2012||OP|
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Response to Pirate Smile (Original post)
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 11:20 AM
Ya Basta (391 posts)
4. Good article
But I think the "tsunami" in my opinion is more like a volcanic throat clearing and the main event hasn't happened yet. I also think there's several indicators that the main event is very near.