Franklin Delano Obama?
By Paul Krugman
Suddenly, everything old is New Deal again. Reagan is out; F.D.R. is in. Still, how much guidance does the Roosevelt era really offer for today’s world?
The answer is, a lot. But Barack Obama should learn from F.D.R.’s failures as well as from his achievements: the truth is that the New Deal wasn’t as successful in the short run as it was in the long run. And the reason for F.D.R.’s limited short-run success, which almost undid his whole program, was the fact that his economic policies were too cautious.
About the New Deal’s long-run achievements: the institutions F.D.R. built have proved both durable and essential. Indeed, those institutions remain the bedrock of our nation’s economic stability. Imagine how much worse the financial crisis would be if the New Deal hadn’t insured most bank deposits. Imagine how insecure older Americans would feel right now if Republicans had managed to dismantle Social Security.
Can Mr. Obama achieve something comparable? Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s new
chief of staff, has declared that “you don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste.” Progressives hope that the Obama administration, like the New Deal, will respond to the current economic and financial crisis by creating institutions, especially a universal health care system, that will change the shape of American society for generations to come.
But the new administration should try not to emulate a less successful aspect of the New Deal: its inadequate response to the Great Depression itself.
Now, there’s a whole intellectual industry, mainly operating out of right-wing think tanks, devoted to propagating the idea that F.D.R. actually made the Depression worse. So it’s important to know that most of what you hear along those lines is based on deliberate misrepresentation of the facts. The New Deal brought real relief to most Americans.
That said, F.D.R. did not, in fact, manage to engineer a full economic recovery during his first two terms. This failure is often cited as evidence against Keynesian economics, which says that increased public spending can get a stalled economy moving. But the definitive study of fiscal policy in the ’30s, by the M.I.T. economist E. Cary Brown, reached a very different conclusion: fiscal stimulus was unsuccessful “not because it does not work, but because it was not tried.”
This may seem hard to believe. The New Deal famously placed millions of Americans on the public payroll via the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. To this day we drive on W.P.A.-built roads and send our children to W.P.A.-built schools.
Didn’t all these public works amount to a major fiscal stimulus? Well, it wasn’t as major as you might think. The effects of federal public works spending were largely offset by other factors, notably a large tax increase, enacted by Herbert Hoover, whose full effects weren’t felt until his successor took office.
Also, expansionary policy at the federal level was undercut by spending cuts and
tax increases at the state and local level.
And F.D.R. wasn’t just reluctant to pursue an all-out fiscal expansion — he was eager to return to conservative budget principles. That eagerness almost destroyed his legacy. After winning a smashing election victory in 1936, the Roosevelt administration cut spending and raised taxes, precipitating an economic relapse that drove the unemployment rate back into double digits and led to a major defeat in the 1938 midterm elections.
What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.
This history offers important lessons for the incoming administration. The political lesson is that economic missteps can quickly undermine an electoral mandate. Democrats won big last week — but they won even bigger in 1936, only to see their gains evaporate after the recession of 1937-38. Americans don’t expect instant economic results from the incoming administration, but they do expect results, and Democrats’ euphoria will be short-lived if they don’t deliver an economic recovery.
The economic lesson is the importance of doing enough. F.D.R. thought he was being prudent by reining in his spending plans; in reality, he was taking big risks with the economy and with his legacy. My advice to the Obama people is to figure out how
much help they think the economy needs, then add 50 percent. It’s much better,
in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus than on the side of too little.
In short, Mr. Obama’s chances of leading a new New Deal depend largely on whether his short-run economic plans are sufficiently bold. Progressives can only hope that he has the necessary audacity.
Krugman adds more in his blog Conscience of a Liberal
Stimulus math (wonkish)
I wrote this morning’s column partly because I had a hunch that the Obama people might be thinking too small on stimulus. Now I have more than a hunch – I’ve heard an unreliable rumor!
So let’s talk about stimulus math, as I see it.
Actually, before I get to the math, some concepts. Nearly every forecast now says that, in the absence of strong policy action, real GDP will fall far below potential output in the near future. In normal times, that would be a reason to cut interest rates. But interest rates can’t be cut in any meaningful sense. Fiscal policy is the only game in town.
Wait, there’s more. Ben Bernanke can’t push on a string – but he can pull, if necessary. Suppose fiscal policy ends up being too expansionary, so that real GDP “wants” to come in 2 percent above potential. In that case the Fed can tighten a bit, and no harm is done. But if fiscal policy is too contractionary, and real GDP comes in below potential, there’s no potential monetary offset. That means that fiscal policy should take risks in the direction of boldness.
So what kinds of numbers are we talking about? GDP next year will be about $15 trillion, so 1% of GDP is $150 billion. The natural rate of unemployment is, say, 5% — maybe lower. Given Okun’s law, every excess point of unemployment above 5 means a 2% output gap.
Right now, we’re at 6.5% unemployment and a 3% output gap – but those numbers are heading higher fast. Goldman predicts 8.5% unemployment, meaning a 7% output gap. That sounds reasonable to me.
So we need a fiscal stimulus big enough to close a 7% output gap. Remember, if the stimulus is too big, it does much less harm than if it’s too small. What’s the multiplier? Better, we hope, than on the early-2008 package. But you’d be hard pressed to argue for an overall multiplier as high as 2. When I put all this together, I conclude that the stimulus package should be at least 4% of GDP, or $600 billion.
That’s twice what the unreliable rumor says. So if there’s any truth to the rumor, my advice to the powers that be (or more accurately will be in a couple of months) is to think hard – you really, really don’t want to lowball this.