Sunday, March 4, 2012

Obama's Burden

A recent cover story of The Week magazine relates the difficult choices President Obama faces in Afghanistan. These choices are part of the larger set of problems he has faced since his first day in office. The two endless (and thankless) wars in the Middle East were only his biggest foreign challenge for a president who also had to overcome the biggest economic recession since the 1930's, the spectacular fallout from Wall Street's recklessly irresponsible activity; activity, it should be added, that was condoned and even applauded by free market ideologues, including Alan Greenspan.

All of this in addition to a massive trade deficit, one caused by policies that have allowed widespread offshoring of jobs and a corporate culture that does not take manufacturing seriously--these are the prime reason industries have been hollowed out.  This bears repeating: It is our own incoherent industrial policies that have contributed the most to our weakened industrial base and the mammoth trade deficit that it engendered, not China, not Japan, not foreign oil.

Obama faced two hugely expensive wars, neither of which was going well. He was forced to choose from several poor choices. The wars have added enormously to the national debt, an issue that did not seem to bother Republicans while Bush was in office.

The US has generally paid for its wars by raising taxes. We certainly did so in WWII, the Korean War, and Viet Nam. Many voters have forgotten how unusual and as we now know, reckless it was for George W. Bush, who inherited a huge budget surplus, to first squander the surplus by passing costly tax cuts for those already wealthy.  He too was faced with a large national debt as well as a seriously eroding infrastructure. He opted for tax cuts, the budget deficits returned, and then he went to war. Bush and the Republican-controlled congress refused to pay for it and the federal government has been growing its deficit ever since.

Obama tried to do what many economists said he must do; stimulate the economy, and keep the budget deficit from becoming too large, not an easy task, but then he did not create the conditions and policies in place when he took office. Others created them; Obama is getting blamed for them.

The irony is that Obama's fiscal stimulus was conventional, mainstream, and conservative. Keynes himself made it clear that government stimulus spending was very much a conservative alternative to the much greater pain of allowing massive unemployment and the resultant upheaval and unrest.

Obama gets blamed for continuing unemployment too, of course. The realty is that we have a much smaller industrial base that will call back workers when conditions improve. This is a big reason the recession lasted as long as it did, and why the recovery is so slow: there are far fewer good-paying jobs. Instead, millions of people have been forced to settle for poorer paying jobs than the ones they once held, and often with fewer benefits. Lower wages exacerbates economic recovery.

The final kicker is one left out of most analyses that focus on the mortgage crisis. The middle class carried the economy all the way until near the end of Bush the Lesser's second term. They did so by running up massive personal debts on their credit cards. That was unsustainable, of course, so once the Wall Street bankers crashed the economy, and unemployment started to rise, middle class consumers cut back on expenses. The cutbacks were prudent for the individual, but they hurt spending, tax receipts, and other peoples' jobs that depended on spending.

This is the mess the President faced on inauguration date. None of it started with him. And the process, the wars, the deindustrialization, the irresponsible tax cuts, the eroding infrastructure, the mortgage bubble, the suppression of wages, the dominance of unaccountable banks, all of it, was well under way long before most of us had even heard of Barack Obama.

Now bear in mind that most of the same people who got us in this mess, including essentially every Republican in congress, are completely opposed to Obama's every effort to extricate us, as if we can actually dig ourselves out of the hole, the one the middle class did not dig, without some pain and sacrifice. So if Obama tries to raise taxes to where they were in the Clinton boom years, he is a big government socialist. Never mind that taxes were higher under Reagan. If he tries to cut subsidies to Big Oil, as if they they needed it, he is undermining business. If he tries to rein in our out of control defense spending, he is endangering America's security. Never mind that the level of spending he proposes would still be higher than it was in Bush's first term. And every effort to get Wall Street under greater control, before it ruins it again for the rest of us, is opposed. Republicans insisted in 2010 that the Bush tax cuts be extended, and they were willing to shut down Washington to get them.  And now, of course, Obama gets blamed for the inevitably larger budget deficit.

Republicans have left the President with few options: Republicans will continue to support looser regulations and lower taxes (for the rich). Never mind that these are what created the financial mess in the first place. Only now are Republicans insisting on lower spending, not coincidentally on the programs that help the bottom half of society. Any honest appraisal of the federal budget will show that even significantly lower spending will do little to close the budget gap, not when tax revenues-from individuals and corporations alike-are the lowest they have been in decades.

Here is a short video that covers much of the above. It offers up in graphic form the impact on the federal deficit and debt of the wars, the bank bailouts, the recession, and most of all the Bush tax cuts.

One more thing; Obama even got Osama bin Ladin, after the trail had gone cold, so no, Bush, you don't get credit. 

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