I’ve seen a fair amount of commentary on the part of Ryan Lizza’s profile of the Obama economic team where Christina Romer recommends a $1.2 trillion stimulus proposal and they wind up with just a bit more than half of that out of deference to the tender sensibilities of the United States Senate. I’ve seen less commentary on this other part, where basically the same thing happen on financial system policy:
Romer believed that the banks wouldn’t lend again until they were well capitalized. For banks in severe stress, she favored creating a government-backed “bad bank” to take the toxic assets off the banks’ books and then recapitalize them with government funds—essentially a version of nationalization, and what the Swedish government had done during that nation’s financial crisis of the early nineties. This argument was quickly rendered moot because of the cost. There wasn’t much money left in the TARP kitty, and any chance of getting more from Congress had ended with that morning’s news: A.I.G., which had received a hundred and seventy billion dollars in federal money, had handed out multimillion-dollar bonuses to the executives responsible for the company’s demise. Axelrod said, “The one thing that was absolutely clear was, we were not in a position to go back to Congress.”
Axelrod’s argument seems absolutely sound. And Rahm Emannuel’s argument on the stimulus that congress wouldn’t appropriate $1.2 trillion also seems absolutely sound. But of course Romer’s arguments weren’t arguments about feasible legislative strategies. Of all the senior members of the Obama administration, Romer has by far the least experience with practical legislative politics and also has the job that’s the least concerned with practical legislative politics. And I think that it was in a lot of ways a masterstroke to appoint a very policy-focused academic with no practical legislative experience to the CEA job. When people work too long in Washington, their notions of what would be good policy in principle tend to become unduly corrupted by their knowledge of what’s possible in practice.
But what Lizza is telling us is that on the two biggest pieces of macroeconomic management, the Obama administration is pursuing policies that its in-house expert on macroeconomic crisis management believed were far too timid. He’s also telling us that this was done primarily not because people disagreed with her analysis, but because they felt it wasn’t possible, legislatively speaking, to do what was objectively necessary. It’s a bit of a scary situation.