Sunday, September 02, 2012

Revisiting "The untold story of the actual Obama record" (Andrew Sullivan, Mark Zandi, and some relevant facts)

(With some analytically pertinent remarks by Barney Frank about the problem of counterfactuals.)

[Note: I posted this back in October 2011, but now that the Republican convention has just finished and the the Democratic convention is imminent, this may be a good time to reiterate what Chris Christie might call a few "hard truths."  And as a quick antidote to some of the economic claptrap we've been hearing from the Republicans, check out the graph below.]

Andrew Sullivan and one of his readers (quoted below) get it basically right. One could quibble about some points, and overall my assessment of the Obama administration's record is more mixed than theirs—mostly because I think that in some critical ways Obama and his administration really have been too timid, too willing to cave in to the Republicans, and at times too close to Republican thinking themselves. But Sullivan and his reader accurately sum up a very important part of the overall picture ... which, as they correctly point out, is strangely missing from a lot of public discourse nowadays. And the right-wing counter-narrative about Obama's record is, of course, ludicrous.

=> For example, it's clear that the 2009 economic "stimulus" (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) was too small—especially since the economic crash of 2007-2009 turns out to have been more severe than most analysts recognized at the time—and in various ways it could have been better designed. But if no serious stimulus had been passed at all, and passed quickly, the results would have been disastrous. The self-reinforcing downward spiral of the economy would almost certainly have gone into free fall, official unemployment might well be closer to 15% than 9%, and instead of our current Great Recession we would probably have something more like another Great Depression. Instead, within a few months of the passage of the ARRA the economy stabilized and then gradually began to recover. Let's just quote Mark Zandi, who is not a left-liberal neo-Keynesian but a quintessential mainstream economist who was an economic adviser for John McCain in 2008.

[W]e would be in a measurably worse place if not for the stimulus. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the great recession ended [i.e., the economy stopped contracting] at precisely the same time that the stimulus, and in this case when I say stimulus I am talking about the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] … was providing its maximum economic benefit.
Here's a handy graphic illustration that captures one dimension of this story. It shows the month-by-month record of net job gains and losses in the private sector from January 2008 through November 2011. Notice any difference between the first three months of 2009 (the first three blue lines) and the period since then?


In short, the 2009 economic "stimulus" worked—probably not as well as it could have, but definitely a lot better than the alternative option of not passing it at all. The only people who try to pretend otherwise are economic illiterates, a few sincere but misguided economic cranks theologically committed to pre-Keynesian economic dogmas, and/or cynical partisan propagandists who don't really care about the facts one way or another. On the other hand, the Democrats, including Obama, have been remarkably ineffective in telling their side of this story. They need to do a lot better.

It should not be forgotten that the ARRA, which played a crucial and indispensable role in saving the economy from disaster, was passed against monolithic, almost unanimous opposition by the Congressional Republicans. It did not receive a single Republican vote in the House of Representatives, and the Republicans proposed no serious alternative (obviously, the adjective "serious" is key here, since they did come up with various inadequate and mostly irrelevant flimflam proposals). Then the only way to get the ARRA through the Senate, in the face of a Republican filibuster, was for the Democrats to obtain the cooperation of what were then the last three "moderate" Republican Senators, the two Senators from Maine and now-former-Senator Arlen Spector. And in order to do that, they had to agree to a series of extremely unwise modifications that rendered the ARRA even less effective than its House version (which was already too watered-down). Except for those three, the other Senate Republicans voted monolithically against the ARRA. If it had been up to the Republicans, the economy would almost certainly have gone over the edge in 2009.

=> So while Obama's record so far is definitely subject to a lot of valid criticisms, in my opinion, it's also true that critics need to keep a sense of perspective. Policies and outcomes always have to be judged, not only in light of the ideal or the most desirable, but also in light of the range of realistically available alternatives (which, admittedly, are usually not easy to specify precisely).

The deepest and most illuminating analyses of the resulting dilemmas, for both political judgment and historical explanation, are probably those of Max Weber. But in 2009 the well-known social philosopher Barney Frank offered an interesting reflection of his own on this larger analytical point. What follows is a quotation that I have been saving for a paper I plan to write (eventually) on the subject of what analytical philosophers call "counterfactuals". But why wait?

From a Congressional hearing reported by the Washington Post (7/21/2009):

REP BARNEY FRANK: Not for the first time, as a -- a -- an elected official, I envy economists. Economists have available to them, in an analytical approach, the counterfactual. Economists can explain that a given decision was the best one that could be made, because they can show what would have happened in the counterfactual situation. They can contrast what happened to what would have happened.

No one has ever gotten reelected where the bumper sticker said, "It would have been worse without me." You probably can get tenure with that. But you can't win office. [....]
Probably true. But it's the kind of argument that often should be taken seriously in politics ... up to a point.

—Jeff Weintraub
Andrew Sullivan (The Daily Dish)
October 20, 2011
The Untold Story Of The Actual Obama Record


I can't put it better than this longtime Dish reader:
Personally, I am praying that Obama's messaging improves drastically. (It has failed on multiple occasions - not the least of which was during August/September of 2008.)

The truth is that this President has done a good job in what has been one of the most difficult periods of modern history. He saved the economy from ruin (until the Tea Party took over Congress) with a stimulus that was as large as possible given the political realities, presided over a stock market that fairly quickly recouped many of its losses, presided over almost consecutive monthly increases in private sector job growth (unfortunately balanced by monthly decreases in public sector jobs which I attribute to the GOP further starving government), enacted the only meaningful healthcare reform ever in our history [JW: obviously a bit of an overstatement, probably written carelessly and in haste], passed financial reform (no matter what the Left says, he did this), saved the auto industry (which Romney is on record opposing), fired the first salvo of the Arab Spring with his address in Cairo no less, drawn down our footprint in Iraq in a responsible way (and headed toward almost total withdrawal), stopped numerous terrorist attacks in this country, stopped torture as policy, repealed DADT, joined the international community in a measured and responsible way to bring down an odious tyrant in Qaddafi, and killed a whole generation of al Qaeda leaders. And taking out Osama bin Laden the way he did will go down as one of the bravest military actions in American history.

I know this President is not popular, and it is very unpopular to defend him in such a way. I don't care. For this country to dump him for anyone on the other side would be a terrible thing. Progress is slow and painful, but we are doing it. Is that fashionable to say? No. Again, I don't care.
Amen. And the way in which the ADD media simply jumps to the next cycle of spinmanship only furthers the amnesia. But the Obama administration also shares some of the blame.

Many of them have been too focused on governing to explain what the fuck they're doing. There's a technocratic arrogance to them at times that is too blind to winning and sustaining arguments and narratives. And this is kinda mind-blowing because the record is so remarkable in retrospect.

If you'd told me in January 2009 that the banks would pay us back the entire bailout and then some, that the auto companies would actually turn around with government help and be a major engine of recovery, that there would be continuous job growth since 2009, however insufficient, after the worst demand collapse since the 1930s, that bin Laden would be dead, Egypt transitioning to democracy, al Qaeda all but decimated as a global threat, and civil rights for gays expanding more rapidly than at any time in history ... well I would be expecting a triumphant re-election campaign.

But we are where we are - and the economic pain is real and the president must take his lumps. The good news for those of us who still back Obama and hope for his re-election is that even with all this positive record essentially dismissed and little of it capitalized on politically, Obama is still neck and neck with any likely opponent. And he is his own best messager.

At some point, he needs to shuck off the restraint, and tell the actual story of the last three years - against the fantastic and self-serving lies and delusions we keep hearing in Republican debates and Beltway chatter. If he does it with panache, he won't need a jumpsuit onto an aircraft carrier. And many of his missions may even be accomplished.