The Anti-Economist — February 13, 2013, 5:11 pm

The Economic Understatement of the Union

If the president wants the public???s support, he should be making a forceful case for spending

President Obama has for some time now been building a Procrustean bed on the issue of deficit cutting. We have no room to increase spending, his fixed position goes, because we must cut the deficit now — and never mind that serious deficits will not afflict the economy until the late 2020s, if then. Obama began moving in this direction with his appointment of two conservatives, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, to head his budget-balancing commission, and he has reinforced the argument time and again since.

For all that, the president’s State of the Union address last night offered an admirable if weak laundry list of proposals. They included a commission on protecting voting rights (largely overlooked in post-speech analysis), and a much-needed minimum-wage rise, to $9 an hour. Neither of these would require additional government spending. But does anyone believe that voting commission will be aggressive enough? Does anyone believe this Congress will pass a $9 minimum wage?

Obama also offered general proposals on the hot-button issues of immigration reform, emissions constraints, and gun control. Only on the last of these did his speech become emotional, as he demanded that Republicans allow a vote on the issue. The strategy seems to be to force them to vote against reform, then send them home to constituents who will wonder why they refused to back sensible controls.

Less controversially, Obama proposed a high-quality system of pre-kindergarten education in partnership with the states. He also talked about infrastructure spending (though only of enacting a previous proposal), and mentioned in passing that cutting spending during sequestration could hurt the economy. His tone was so quiet on the latter issue that I doubt the public understood its importance. It ought to have been his focus.

The economy could be making progress right now, but the president’s opponents are holding it back with unreasonable demands for cuts in social spending and threats to vote against the next debt-ceiling increase. If the economy grows slowly this year, Obama might have said, we know whose fault this will be. But, sadly, he didn’t go to battle, instead falling into his Procrustean bed. None of his new proposals, he made sure to say, would add to the deficit.

Herein lies the problem. With no way to finance his pre?K program, for example, why should anyone take it seriously? Nor did he offer a strong defense of social programs in the face of proposed cuts. To the contrary, he said he’d reform Medicare along the lines suggested by the Bowles–Simpson commission, which was conspicuously free of specifics.

The economy needs more government spending — or at least a hold on spending cuts — in order to grow and to reduce unemployment. It needs bolder investment programs.  Perhaps Obama thinks speaking quietly is the path to credibility on the economy. With unemployment still hovering around 8 percent, he appears not to want to risk adopting forceful policies, yet his modest, compromised actions to date have failed to get the recovery on track. He and his team failed to implement bold mortgage relief, to back a strong public option in Obamacare, and to advertise how well their stimulus program had worked, which made it difficult to come back for a second one.

The groundwork is there, however. Obama came up with an effective jobs program at the end of 2011. His infrastructure proposal can be built upon, as can Obamacare. In the State of the Union, he made a good case for government. But even so, he was careful to state, “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government.” He might instead have established a set of priorities, proposing two or three programs to which he devote all of his — and the government’s — energy. And he might have adopted a tone appropriate to today’s jobs emergency.

We have an intelligent president who is moving in the right direction. But he is moving too slowly, hobbled by his obeisance to the deficit hawks.

Share
Single Page
writes the Anti-Economist column for Harper’s Magazine.

More from Jeff Madrick:

Context July 16, 2015, 12:59 pm

A Deeply Integrated Europe

The euro and its discontents

Context July 10, 2015, 10:15 am

How Germany Reconquered Europe

The euro and its discontents

From the February 2014 issue

How Germany Reconquered Europe

The euro and its discontents

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2016

American Idle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My Holy Land Vacation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The City That Bleeds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Bloqueo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vladivostok Station

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ideology of Isolation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The City That Bleeds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing."
Photograph (detail) © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective
Post
Inside the July Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tom Bissell on touring Israel with Christian Zionists, Joy Gordon on the Cuban embargo, Lawrence Jackson on Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising, a story by Paul Yoon, and more

i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.

The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”

Artwork: Camels, Jerusalem (detail) copyright Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Post
Europe’s Hamilton Moment·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"We all know in France that as soon as a politician starts saying that some problem will be solved at the European level, that means no one is going to do anything."
Photograph (detail) by Stefan Boness
[Report]
How to Make Your Own AR-15·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Even if federal gun-control advocates got everything they wanted, they couldn’t prevent America’s most popular rifle from being made, sold, and used. Understanding why this is true requires an examination of how the firearm is made.
Illustration by Jeremy Traum
Article
My Holy Land Vacation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson

Average number of Americans who are injured by chain saws each year:

36,000

A farmer in Kenya bit a python who tried to eat him.

A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today