Economic History Lesson

Lawrence Summers, the president�s chief economist, wants to make current crisis a footnote

Summers’ discourse was optimistic for the most part. He maintained that the economic “free fall” was likely to end in the next few months. A bit of encouraging news over the past week may be viewed by some as confirmation of his assertion. Earlier this week, a New York Times/CBS News poll showed Americans had grown more confident about the direction of the country in the 11 weeks since President Obama’s inauguration. According to that poll, the number of people who held that view jumped from 15% in mid-January to 39% today, while the number of individuals who believed the nation was headed in the wrong direction dropped from 79% to 53%. And on Thursday, stocks surged more than 3% based on a better-than-expected earnings report from Wells Fargo, one of the nation’s largest consumer banks. As a result, the Dow Jones Industrial Average posted gains of 246 points to close at 8,083. And the S&P 500 has risen more than 25% since stocks hit bottom on March 9, considered one of the most impressive bear market rallies since the Great Depression. More important, recent news reports reveal that credit markets have started to thaw and historically low-interest rates have spurred home-buying activity in hard-hit markets.

But it’s much too early to say that the critically-ill patient is recovering. He just blinked his eye. To use Summers’ metaphor, the policy approach of the Obama administration can be compared to that of a high-wire act. “It’s a very delicate balance the administration is going to have to walk” to make sure that the country doesn’t spiral into a deflationary cycle reminiscent of Japan’s “Lost Decade” of the 1990s when the meltdown of the real estate and stock markets caused a prolonged economic slump in what used to be the world’s second largest economy. Economic historians maintain that the Japanese government was too tepid in its economic stimulus policies. As a result, consumers lost confidence as they held on to their money. Unemployment rose and businesses failed as prices plunged. To this day, Japan has never fully recovered. “That’s why the president thought it was so important to have such a large program of fiscal stimulus at the beginning of the administration, why there’s been such an ambitious set of efforts to support credit markets,” Summers told his audience. “Now I do think that [we] really have a huge challenge for us as a country. You can think about it as a model for a company. It is really important that for the next two to three years the company step on the gas and expand its activities. After that, it’s going to be really crucial to restrain expenditures. That’s a difficult strategy to implement.”

But what’s needed will be a focus on the long term—and loads of patience. He asserts that “the president’s emphasis on health care, infrastructure, and, in particular, restructuring the energy economy aren’t luxuries to be deferred at a time of a weak economy. They actually are an integral part of a strategy for having a sustained kind of economic expansion. That really needs to be our objective so that these next years aren’t just a period of recovery but a period of renewal as well.”

Derek T. Dingle is the editor-in-chief of Black Enterprise magazine.

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  • Cogito Ergosum

    Some people have wondered whether Summers is the right guy to be fixing the economy, since he’s (as the charges go) too cozy with Wall Streeters and too much a part of what created the problem to help with solutions. Bill Moyers recently ripped Summers in a blog
    (http://www.counterpunch.org/moyers04082009.html)

    I think it’s a bit unfair. Summers is exactly the kind of guy Obama needs on his team. He’s a good economist, who “knows where all the bodies are buried”, as they say.

  • Christopher

    There is an important difference between “knowing” where the bodies are buried and “finding” where the bodies are buried when it comes to correcting problems that arise from past practices and actions.

    “Knowing” where the bodies are buried gives you the opportunity to more quickly assess the damage and propose solutions. It, also, gives you the opportunity to avoid the bodies that makes it uncomfortable for you and others that you are beholding-to to face. Whether warranted or not, critics of the insider’s results will question the veracity and completeness of the reports out of fear that the results are self-serving.

    “Finding” the bodies lengthens the time it takes to complete the search for answers and holds the possibility that some bodies will never be found. This means that wrong conclusions can be drawn from the results and ,therefore, solutions may miss the target. This result, may lead to failures in correcting the immediate problems and/or lead to unintended consequences that cause significant problems in the future. Provided that the person or team involved in finding the pbodies are viewed as competent by the consumers of the reports, however, the results will at least be viewed as trustworthy and well intentioned.

    Mr. Summers is being cast in the group of “knowers” by Mr. Moyers and rightly so. He has been an insider and the risk mentioned above are real. Only time will tell whether the risk were worth taking. And, that evaluation will be made by history, not current cheerleaders or critics.