Following the first installment of a year-end interview on the global outlook, I turn in the second installment to the domestic economy.
Part 2. The US Economy
Q – As economic adviser to President Clinton, you oversaw one of the most prosperous periods in recent U.S. history. How do you assess the economic strategy of the Obama administration? What would you have done differently were you an adviser?
A – In my view President Clinton’s policies did contribute substantially to the outstanding performance of the American economy in the late 1990s. People did not give him enough credit at the time. (I myself had nothing to do with it, I assure you.)
The situation that President Obama inherited from the second President Bush was quite different from the situation that Bill Clinton had inherited from the father in January 1993. As of the day Obama took office in January 2009, the worst financial crisis since the 1930s was still underway, US GDP and employment were in free fall (the numbers turn out to have been much worse, even, than we knew at the time), and the budget deficit was skyrocketing. People like to say that a favorable judgment regarding Obama’s reaction rests solely on the unprovable proposition that the US would otherwise have experienced a Great Depression. But in fact a turnaround in the economic statistics is visible to the naked eye. GDP and the rate of job loss stabilized almost immediately after Inauguration Day and the recession ended in June 2009. In my view the three main reasons that things began to turn around so quickly were the Obama fiscal stimulus, the new improved TARP program, and continued innovative monetary expansion by the Fed.
A majority of Americans still don’t yet see it that way. Among other things, they haven’t seen the data on the 2009 turnaround and they don’t know that the US Treasury was paid back for the “bailouts” with a substantial overall profit.
So I think Obama’s policies did a lot of good during the first two years of his presidency. This is especially true if one includes two big longer-term reforms: the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and financial reform (the Dodd-Frank bill). But it is more difficult to attribute the path of the economy during 2011-2014 to the President, because the Republican Congress blocked almost every bit of legislation that he wanted during this period.
Q – What is the outlook for the US economy?
A – We should be able to grow at 3 per cent in 2015. In 2001, 2012, and 2013, economic growth was impaired by dysfunctional fiscal politics in Congress – fiscal cliffs, debt ceiling stand-offs, government shutdown, and sequesters. In my view that knocked at least one percentage point off of the growth rate in each of those years. This is a more obvious explanation for the slow pace of the recovery in those years than the secular stagnation hypothesis. In 2014 the Congress managed to refrain from actively impeding the economy in this way. I believe that is a major reason why economic growth in the second and third quarters of this past year was so much stronger than in the preceding three years. On top of that, we have had the frackingboom and lower oil prices. I see no reason why the good performance should not continue in 2015 – unless Congress screws it up again.
Q – If the Federal Reserve raises interest rates as expected in June 2015, might that choke off the recovery?
A – The Fed might in the end wait slightly longer. (There is no more sign of inflation now than there has been since the period of near-zero interest rates began.) But when the Fed does raise interest rates, it will be because the US economic recovery is very well-established. So that would be good news, not bad news.
Q – Name a threat to the global economy.
A – Many countries are hampered by their own politicians’ habit of following pro-cyclical fiscal policy. That is, they raise government spending and cut taxes in boom times, which exaggerates the upswing, and then cut spending and raise taxes in recessions, worsening the downturn. Exactly backwards.
Q – Upon release of Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty, capitalism again became a hotly debated topic around the world. Do you think the current global economic system is sustainable? What aspects could be improved?
A – No doubt one of the reasons that most Americans are skeptical of the economic recovery is that they don’t feel it because virtually all the gains have gone to the rich. Real median family income is still more than 8 per cent below where it was in 2000.
I disapprove of the recent increase in inequality in the US and other countries. But I do not see the inequality either as an inevitable aspect of capitalism nor as unsustainably containing the seeds of destruction of the system. Piketty’s book treats the big decline of inequality in the years 1913-1973 as a temporary reversal in a long-term trend toward unequal wealth that began in Jane Austen’s time, the early 19th century. To do so is to treat the rise of democracy as a temporary blip, which it is not. There is no reason why a democratic system cannot choose policies that give a good combination of growth in the overall size of the pie together with a somewhat more equal distribution of the pie. Scandinavian countries have done this in their own way. In the US case, I support such policies as universal pre-school education, universal health care insurance, expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and a more progressive structure to the payroll tax, among others.