Tag: Barack Obama

Is the New Obama Administration Walking Away from Transparency Already?

The new Whitehouse.gov went live shortly after Barack Obama became president yesterday. It has much of the look and feel of his transition Web site, Change.gov.

Among the featured items on the homepage today (they will change regularly, of course) is the site itself and the new administration’s commitment to transparency. However, the actual terms of that commitment come up pretty anemic.

In a post on the White House blog, Director of New Media Macon Phillips says:

President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history, and WhiteHouse.gov will play a major role in delivering on that promise. The President’s executive orders and proclamations will be published for everyone to review, and that’s just the beginning of our efforts to provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government. You can also learn about some of the senior leadership in the new administration and about the President’s policy priorities.

Executive orders and proclamations? Information about senior leadership and the president’s priorities? That’s not breaking any new ground on transparency.

The transition’s “Seat at the Table” program required “any documents from official meetings with outside organizations [to] be posted on our website for people to review and comment on.”

The decision to port this practice over to the White House has either not been made, or has been decided against. Given that meetings are already happening, it will be a tough policy to implement if it is not implemented right away.

There is an “Office of Public Liaison” (and intergovernmental affairs) on the Whitehouse.gov site, but it’s nothing more than an email submission form at this point. “More ways for you to interact” are promised.

Words aren’t deeds, and it’s already too late to demonstrate a day-one commitment to transparency. Let’s hope the first steps of the new administration are not steps away from the important transparency precedents set by the transition.

Update: As this post was being written and edited, news stories were coming out about new executive orders dealing with ethics and transparency. Though I haven’t been able to find them yet – hint hint, Whitehouse.gov – the change to the interpretation of FOIA sounds like a welcome, though modest, step in the right direction.

Responsibilities

President Obama delivered an interesting inaugural speech yesterday. His theme was responsibility, a theme that provides a useful frame for his administration.

The individual versus the collective: Americans generally affirm individual or personal responsibility for one’s life. To be an adult – to put aside childish things - means taking responsibility for one’s actions and outcomes. Yet language permits another possibility. “We” can take responsibility for this outcome or that injustice. Putting aside childish things means taking collective responsibility through government action. In this view, emphasizing the individual suggests a childish selfishness that should be overcome. Obama seems to be about both kinds of responsibility right now. But extending state control over society vitiates personal responsibility. The new president will have to choose between the two.

The rule of law versus charisma: In a free society, individuals associate together through consent within a set of impersonal rules enforced by an impartial judiciary. Societies may also be ruled by charismatic leaders who are thought to have special powers granted by divine favor or by other means. Charismatic authority undermines both individual and collective responsibility. No one need do anything: the special man will say the magic words and everything will change for the better. Moreover, charismatic men with special powers should not be restrained by mere laws. They are above such restraints and must be so to do their work.

Consequences versus absolute ends: In an ethic of responsibility, leaders and followers look to consequences in acting politically. President Obama alluded to an ethic of responsibility yesterday. We want a government that works; programs that do not work will be ended. The thought is admirable, the reality unpromising. Ronald Reagan eliminated two federal programs, one of which was a training program that worsened the lot of its clients. Reagan was thought to have a mandate to cut back government. Obama was elected for many reasons, none of which were constraining the federal government. More than a few of his followers expect he will, as he put it yesterday, “remake the world.” Those who set out to remake the world rarely notice the immediate consequences of their crusade. After all, the benefits of bringing heaven to earth will more than overcome the costs of the crusade.

Obama’s modest demeanor suggests an understanding of his own limitations.  If that is true, he may turn out to be more a politician and less a priest, a president content to live within the laws and achieve marginal changes in public policy.

But I wonder. Living in Washington, DC, I have recently had reason to recall Samuel Johnson’s remark about Shakespeare: “In his plays, there are no heroes, only men.” Obama seems to be telling a different story, a tale about charismatic heroes and utopian aspirations. When the talking stops and the doing begins, one question will be answered: Do Americans really want to live out a play where there are no men, only heroes?

A Government That “Works,” but for Whom?

In his inaugural address yesterday, President Obama tried to step around the central question of whether the federal government has grown too big and powerful:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.

Even in skirting the question, President Obama has in effect come down on the side of bigger government. His statement assumes that government programs will be central to creating jobs and providing health care and retirement security. For every problem confronting American families, it is just a question of finding the right program that “works.” He leaves off the table the very real possibility that government intervention has made each of those problems more difficult for Americans to solve, and that the answer really is a smaller role for government.

The other open question is who decides if a government program “works.” President Obama has wrapped himself in the mantle of change, yet as a candidate he endorsed the 2008 farm bill. The existing U.S. policy of production subsidies and import tariffs, a policy that has remained essentially unchanged for 75 years, arguably “works” for a small number of relatively well-off sugar, dairy, corn, rice, and cotton farmers. But for the vast majority of Americans, the farm bill delivers higher and more volatile prices at the store, billions of dollars a year in additional government spending, higher cost for U.S. businesses, a degraded environment, and a harder slog out of poverty for millions of farmers in less developed countries. [You can go here to find Cato research on how farm programs have failed to work in our national interest.]

If Senator and candidate Obama could not see the need to end our failed farm policies, it is hard to imagine many if any other programs that will come to an end under his administration.

For more on how scrapping farm subsidies would be a good first step toward removing failed government programs, watch this video:

Dear Leader

Two recent items in the “Cultwatch” category:

NPR has audio of an Atlanta student chorus that will be singing at the inaugural festivities. “Dear Obama hear us sing/we’re ready for the change that you will bring…” (hat tip: David Boaz)

And here’s video of some 800 Chicago elementary school students whose teachers had them form a 150-foot human portrait of the president-elect’s face:

(hat tip: Matt Welch)

Did the New Deal ‘Help’?

While Barack Obama’s economics team hammers out its $800 billion fiscal stimulus plan, the commentariat is battling over the effectiveness of what some consider the prototype stimulus package, the New Deal.* The suppressed (and problematic) conclusion to all this punditry seems to be: Because government spending under the New Deal helped/didn’t help to end the Great Depression, the Obama stimulus plan will/won’t help to end the current recession.

One of the opening salvos was this exchange between George Will (anti-New Deal) and Paul Krugman (pro). More recently, New York Times editorial board member Adam Cohen (pro) wrote this column, responding to an op-ed by former Business Week bureau chief Andrew Wilson (anti) in the Wall Street Journal.

So who’s right? Did New Deal government spending “help,” as Cohen puts it?

To answer that, we first have to define Cohen’s term — what would it mean to say that government spending under the New Deal “helped”? Two possibilities come to mind:

  • New Deal spending boosted consumption, thereby increasing production, reducing unemployment, and ending the Depression.
  • New Deal spending aided people who would have otherwise been destitute during the Depression.

The first sense considers the New Deal as a stimulus program to revive the economy; the second considers it as a welfare program to aid the poor. The two notions are far from equivalent. My reading of the literature suggests that the New Deal did little as an economic stimulus, but it did provide welfare benefits.

The figure below sketches U.S. GDP and government spending (all levels) for the Great Depression era. The wildly fluctuating GDP line clearly marks the Great Contraction of 1929-1932, the Recession within the Depression of 1937–1938, and the return of GDP to pre-crash levels in 1940. In contrast, government spending has only a very mild upward slope over the period (until the 1941 ramping-up for World War II). In 1930, the second year of Herbert Hoover’s administration, government spending totaled $10 billion; at the height of the New Deal spending boom in 1936, government spending reached $13.1 billion. (In comparison, that rate of government spending growth is just below the average for the entire post-WWII era.) This raises the question of whether there was much New Deal fiscal stimulus at all.

figure-14

We get a somewhat different view if we consider the federal budget surplus/deficit. Much of the benefit of fiscal stimulus is supposed to come from the fact that it’s deficit spending. In essence, government borrowing moves future consumption to the present and hopefully boosts the economy to a permanently higher level. As the figure below shows, the federal government dramatically ramped up deficit spending in the last year of Hoover’s administration, as tax receipts sagged and Hoover enacted his own emergency programs. FDR continued the borrowing to fund components of the New Deal.

However, this borrowing was not dramatic by today’s standards. As a share of GDP, the New Deal deficit peaked at 5.4 percent of GDP ($3.6 billion) in 1934; in dollar terms, it peaked at $5.1 billion (4.3 percent of GDP) in 1936. In contrast, President-elect Obama recently announced that he expects “trillion-dollar deficits for years to come,” even without the $800 billion stimulus package that his administration is preparing. With a U.S. GDP of roughly $13.8 trillion, the Obama-projected deficit (not counting the stimulus package) represents 7.2 percent of GDP.

Does the New Deal experience thus suggest that, when it comes to fiscal stimulus, just a little bit can have large effects? Interestingly, economic research suggests the opposite. Long before she was named chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer wrote a short paper for the Journal of Economic History titled “What Ended the Great Depression?” The paper provides empirical evidence that FDR’s fiscal policy provided little stimulus during the Great Depression. As shown in the figure below (reproduced from Romer’s article), the results of the New Deal’s fiscal stimulus (solid line) were little different from what she projects would have resulted from “normal fiscal policy” (dotted line). Both the deficit spending and the multiplier effect from that spending were too small to budge GDP.

What did end the Great Depression? Romer argues that another FDR policy — doubling the fixed exchange rate for the dollar relative to gold — did the trick, though the New Dealers seem to have lucked into that result rather than planned it. The rate change worked as a monetary stimulus, inducing large gold flows into the United States, where they could now buy twice as many dollars. That buttressed bank deposits and increased bank willingness to lend, encouraging investment. The lending resulted in a sharp increase in the money supply, pushing against the Depression’s price deflation and encouraging consumption. From the moment the exchange rate changed, the United States began to climb out of the Depression — albeit slowly; more slowly than many other countries.

Romer’s explanation dovetails with Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s work on the root cause of the Depression: the Federal Reserve’s sharp reduction of the money supply in the late 1920s, in order to moderate the stock market boom and return the United States to the pre-WWI dollar-gold exchange rate. It also dovetails with evidence that other nations’ recoveries from the Great Contraction began soon after they abandoned efforts to return their currencies to pre-war gold exchange rates. My reading of the economic literature indicates that the “monetary policy did it” thesis has been generally accepted by economic historians (contra Cohen’s graf 9).

So it was FDR’s monetary policy that ended the Great Depression, not such New Deal initiatives as the WPA, the CCC, NIRA, and the rest of the alphabet soup. This follows the findings of a later paper that Romer co-authored with husband David Romer on U.S. recessions in the post-WWII era, which found that monetary stimulus proved superior to discretionary fiscal stimulus in restoring the economy.

What, then, to make of our warring pundits? In the fight between Krugman and Will over the stimulatory effects of the New Deal, it seems that opposing sides can both be wrong. Will was incorrect to argue that economic conditions grew worse during the New Deal era — conditions did improve, albeit slowly, and were temporarily reversed by the Recession within the Depression. Krugman, on the other hand, was wrong to argue that FDR’s fiscal stimulus helped to remedy the Depression and that only the large fiscal stimulus of WWII ended the Depression — in fact, GDP had returned to pre-Crash trend (as calculated by Romer) by 1940. And both mischaracterize the 1937–1938 Recession in the Depression. Although federal deficit spending did decrease along with the economy, the recession appears to have been largely the product of onerous new banking regulations that weakened the monetary stimulus (a point that today’s eager-to-regulate Congress should bear in mind).

Concerning Wilson and Cohen, Wilson goes too far in claiming that FDR (and Hoover) “were jointly responsible for turning a panic into the worst depression of modern times.” If anyone merits that distinction, it is the Federal Reserve for its pre-Crash contractionary monetary policy. Cohen is wrong to claim that “as a matter of economics … F.D.R’s spending programs did help the economy.” However, he does have a point that the various New Deal jobs programs provided income for many people who would have otherwise been destitute. As indicated in the figure below, at their height, the programs provided “emergency jobs” to just over 40 percent of laborers who likely would have otherwise been jobless. As state unemployment insurance and federal safety net programs largely did not exist at the time of the Crash, the New Deal jobs programs were likely a godsend for those who got the jobs (though they did little for the millions more who didn’t). Today, however, several government programs provide income and other benefits to the jobless and the poor, so the welfare benefits of the New Deal do not need to be replicated.

Where does all of this leave us in evaluating policy responses to the current recession?

First, the economic history of the New Deal and the rest of the 20th century raises serious doubts about the effectiveness of discretionary fiscal stimulus packages in reversing an economic downturn. Monetary stimulus has a far better track record (which is not to say that we shouldn’t have concerns about such policy — but that is a discussion for another blog post). And though there is no longer a fixed gold exchange rate for the dollar and the Fed has dropped nominal short-term interest rates to near zero, the Fed has other monetary weapons that it can use to fight this recession. Second, the helpful welfare benefits of the New Deal are now carried out automatically by other government programs.

This leaves us with an important question that has so far gone unasked by the commentariat: Given the above, is $800 billion in new government deficit spending worthwhile?

* As Tyler Cowen points out, it’s wrong to think of the New Deal as a comprehensive, unified set of fiscal initiatives; FDR tried many different policies, and sometimes changed approaches, to fight the Depression.

Can You Say Oxymoron?

The House is expected to vote today on an expansion of the State Childrens Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). My colleague, Michael Cannon, has frequently written on the problems of this poorly targeted program that moves six children from private to public coverage for every four uninsured children that it covers. However, it is interesting to note that the $33 billion expansion is supposedly paid for primarily through a 61-cent-per-pack increase in the federal cigarette tax. Yet, at the same time, President-elect Obama announced that his choice for Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services is William Corr, an anti-tobacco lobbyist and executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. So we can shortly expect the Obama administration to step up efforts to stop people from smoking, thereby reducing the taxes they are counting on to pay for their SCHIP expansion. One hardly knows whether to wish them success.