Evaluating Obama on the Economy – Prevailing Criticisms Lack Perspective
While weighing in about the Republican National Committee’s potential ‘Reagan Purity Test’ for its candidates, I focused primarily on its fiscal policy implications. Primarily, I took umbrage to the notion that aspiring to emulate the policies of ‘Reaganomics’ was in any way wise. That Reagan’s economic policies were foolish — broadly speaking, reducing taxes while increasing spending — there can be no doubt.
That being said, it’s important to maintain perspective when criticizing a president’s fiscal prescriptions. Too often, the effects ascribed to presidents and their economic policies are disproportionate to the actual power they wield.
The perception that an American president can snap his fingers and fundamentally alter economic realities is misguided. However, this perception is understandable considering the present state of infotainment masquerading as news on televisions and radios nationwide. Something as huge and complex as the American economy can not be understood in this manor.
Indeed, the complexity of the economy is such that the sound bite analysis offered in “news” reports only serves to muddy the waters. The vast majority of Americans are not economists, and I am no exception. However, I, like so many others who have spent time in college, have been provided with useful metaphors that can help us keep it all in perspective.
In the paragraphs that follow I’ll attempt to impart one such metaphor. Please be aware that my effort to do so is not an attempt simplify the economy as a whole; rather, it is lens to assist the non-economist’s viewing and understanding of the hyperbolic analysis of pundits.
I must admit that I found my brief exposure to the study of economics as an undergraduate as monotonous. However, when the professor delivered her lecture on fiscal policy, she employed the sport of curling as a metaphor in explaining the limits of presidential power in the economic arena. For whatever reason this stuck with me.
If you’re unfamiliar with the sport, here’s a quick glance. (Continued below the clip.)
In curling, the brush is used to maintain the stone’s momentum by melting a thin layer of ice in its path, reducing friction. A brusher can alter the stone’s direction, but unable to apply a direct influence upon it, this ability is very limited.
It isn’t a perfect metaphor, by any means. For our purposes, imagine the economy as the stone already in motion, its momentum and direction affected by the policies of previous administrations. The administration, then, is the one of the players working the brush, not so much to get the stone to stop in a specific place, but in an effort to maintain its momentum toward measured economic growth and full employment.
Consider President Obama as the brusher, his initial economic stimulus package representing him furiously working the brush. Obama’s progressive critics would say he isn’t working the brush hard enough. They argue that the stimulus package was helpful, but insufficient. The New York Times reported Nov. 20 that there’s broad agreement among economists that this is a fair assessment.
Conversely, conservative critics argue that Obama should slow his brushing, or stop it altogether. Considering how Republicans handled the brush when they were in control, the motives for their criticisms — that Obama should be cutting taxes and paying down debt — become suspect. Of course, this is an easy argument to make when your party lacks control of the White House, and the debt in need of paying down was created by Obama’s predecessor.
George W. Bush thought it wise to lower taxes while making little or no effort to control government spending. Bush’s administration managed to make matters worse with the invasion of Iraq. No matter where you stand on the legitimacy of the war, you must admit that its expense was miserably handled.
Returning to the curling metaphor, Bush’s dismal economic performance, combined with neutered regulatory oversight, amounted to ditching their brush in favor of a spade. They dug a trench in the ice leading away from the target, slowing the stone’s momentum and making it more difficult for future administrations to correct.
Criticism of the former administration is notoriously absent in conservative criticism of Obama. They’re quick to declare Obama’s efforts as failing or failed, simultaneously advocating for remedies that would ensure his failure.
That Obama has made any progress on the economy is universally dismissed by right-wing pundits. Instead, they have curiously taken to insisting that Obama is radically “raping” America. Like the conservative policies which brought the U.S. economy to its most recent low point, their hyperbolic analysis has nothing to do with improving the economy. It is intended to craft and solidify the perception among conservative voters that their candidates could do better. For them, it is about power, not progress.
While progressives are also critical of Obama’s economic policy, their criticism is infinitely more constructive. For a good example of this, check out William Greider’s Nov. 23 article at The Nation. Greider effectively illustrates the progressive viewpoint that Obama has thus far been too pragmatic in using the economic powers at his disposal, regardless of their limitations.
Of course, you will not find any curling metaphors in Grieder’s analysis. As I indicated above, this metaphor’s usefulness is in managing expectations of fiscal policy impact. That even if Obama were to follow Grieder’s advice, we shouldn’t expect a rapid economic recovery to commence. To do so would be just as unrealistic as the outrageous Obama-is-raping-America meme advanced by right-wing pundits.
Image from flickr.com user, abraaten, by way of CreativeCommons.org