US Economy

On Monday the Obama administration has promised to spell out its thinking on long-term deficit reduction. Something to read while you’re waiting: “What we hope to see from the Super Committee,” courtesy of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Go big” sums it up. Might support for that actually be building? A news conference with Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles from earlier in the week is worth watching.

An event at the Brookings Institution launched a new report, Rethinking Central Banking, by a team of economic eminences including Barry Eichengreen, Raghu Rajan, Eswar Prasad, Carmen Reinhart, Kenneth Rogoff, and others. I’ve only skimmed it so far but the presentation was interesting and the report looks valuable. The basic thesis is that central banking has become a lot more complicated than it used to be, and the “dominant framework guiding central banking practice” therefore needs to change.

President Obama’s speech to Congress was impressive. Good to see some leading from the front, for a change. The tone was commanding, confident, and purposeful. Crucially, he took the initiative and presented a detailed plan. No more, “I’m willing to consider this.” No more, “I’d like to see that.” Instead, again and again, “Pass this bill.” They won’t, but the point of last night’s speech was not to persuade the House that this or any other new jobs plan makes sense. The House isn’t listening. The president’s goal was to regain public support, and hence make the GOP’s fiscal-policy defeatism harder to sustain. Making the case for specific proposals was a vital part of that. Scored with this in mind, I think it was a fine performance.

It’s not every day that you see the editors of the Wall Street Journal agreeing with the leaders of the AFL-CIO on an issue of economic policy. Both authorities deplore the Justice Department’s action against AT&T’s takeover of T-Mobile. The Journal objects on standard “let the market have its way” grounds; AFL-CIO objects because it says the merger would create jobs (and, as AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka put it when the deal was first announced,  because of “the pro-worker policies of AT&T, one of the only unionized U.S. wireless companies“).

In yesterday’s column I discussed some of the arguments for and against additional monetary stimulus. On balance, I’m for it–and I wouldn’t bet against it happening in the next month or two. The August 9th FOMC minutes released today confirm what we already knew: since QE2 ended in June, the Fed has learned that the recovery is slower and more fragile than it previously thought, and that inflationary pressures have eased. There you have it: what else does the Fed need to know before it embarks on QE3?

Perhaps Ben Bernanke has been reading the Financial Times. Last week Professor Michael Woodford of Columbia University and Mohamed El-Erian of Pimco wrote columns for the paper urging the US Federal Reserve chairman, in his keenly awaited speech at the Jackson Hole conference, not to propose a third phase of asset purchases – so-called quantitative easing. Mr Bernanke did as they advised (in that respect). On Friday, at the annual central bankers’ gathering in Wyoming, he said the Fed would keep its options open but he made no case for QE3.

A lot of Tea Party types want to put the US back on the gold standard. One wonders how many of them even know what this means. Barry Eichengreen examines this “oddball proposal” in A Critique of Pure Gold, in the new National Interest.

Two other economics readings: Vincent Reinhart, Is the Economy Freefalling?, in the AEI Economic Outlook series; and the CBO’s updated Budget and Economic Outlook.

 

There’s a lot to digest about Rick Perry and the Texas Miracle/Unmiracle. ProPublica has a nice reading guide on the topic. It mentions Paul Burka’s indispensable advice to Yankee journalists and National Journal’s thorough review of Perry and the Texas economy.

The Economist’s Erica Greider has written a good piece on the state’s record of job creation. I agree with her: it’s a complicated story but the achievement is striking nonetheless. In general, the Texan economy has a lot to boast about, and some things (notably its healthcare system) to be ashamed of. Perry’s significance on both sides of the ledger is less than his biggest admirers and critics maintain.

Paul Krugman gives Texas credit for an intelligent land-use policy which keeps housing cheap, and for effective regulation of mortgage lending which avoided the worst of the housing bust. Later in the same article, though, he says any state could do what Texas did and steal jobs from elsewhere with “weak regulation”. What weak regulation is that–the strong regulation of mortgage lending he just mentioned, or the light zoning regulation he just praised? Confusing. Still, you can’t quarrel with his observation that people are moving to Texas for the climate. The sparkling lakes and lush verdant forests are also quite a draw.

 

A prevailing misconception about US economic policy is that no good options remain. Fiscal policy is all used up. With interest rates at zero and its balance sheet engorged, the Federal Reserve is powerless too. Revised figures for recent growth show a failing recovery – and there is nothing anybody can do.

Commentators have been unable to agree whether the appointments to the fiscal supercommittee suggest compromise or deadlock. I think National Journal’s Ron Brownstein has it right: the appointees are disinclined to compromise, though not incapable of it. I leave you to decide whether that is a good or bad outcome by current Washington standards.

Both Senate leaders, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pointedly excluded any member of the chamber’s bipartisan “Gang of Six,” which has already proposed a balanced plan to tame the deficit by limiting entitlement spending and raising revenues. House leaders picked loyalists, not mavericks. All of the GOP appointees have publicly indicated opposition to raising taxes, and if Republicans block revenues, the Democrats on the panel won’t limit entitlements. The appointments deepened the capital’s conviction that the exercise is doomed to stalemate.

Betting on failure is usually the safest wager in Washington. But it’s too early to entirely write off the panel. The committee’s members may not be inclined toward compromise, but many are not inimical to it. Although they haven’t challenged party doctrine as directly as the Gang of Six, committee members like House Republicans Dave Camp and Fred Upton (both of Michigan), Senate Democrats Max Baucus of Montana and John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Senate Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio and even (to some extent) Jon Kyl of Arizona have proven willing to negotiate with the other party on difficult issues. Considering the list, one senior White House official says “the mix of people suggests a possibility for compromise—if the leadership in their party will let them do it.”

Judging by their appointments, Congressional leaders today view stalemate as a safer course than compromise. Only public pressure can change that calculation, especially in the GOP, whose resistance to tax increases looms as the panel’s biggest obstacle. More dismal polls might soften that perception—as would more pressure from financial markets.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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