The Three Little Dutch Boys

By / 8.12.2010

The economic news out of Washington this week has an eerie ring of déjà vu: Congress just passed an emergency spending bill, the Fed is buying debt securities to keep the economy from sliding toward collapse, and the Administration announced it is committing billions of dollars to mortgage relief for homeowners facing foreclosure. To be sure, none of these actions has the scale or urgency of the initial responses to the financial crisis, but they are perfect examples of the policy philosophy that has dominated both economic policy since the crisis: a focus on playing defense, rather than offense.

What we saw this week were Congress, the Administration, and the Federal Reserve continuing their roles as the three little Dutch boys of the American economy, sticking fingers in the dyke to save the country from disaster. The rhetoric of stimulus is oversold and misplaced: Washington’s fiscal and monetary policies have essentially all been economic tourniquets that are better characterized as containment measures than stimulus. The Fed is shifting into quantitative easing, but only as much as necessary to fight off deflation. Congress is sending aid to the states, but only enough to keep them from having to lay off teachers. Treasury and HUD are providing assistance to the housing market, but only enough to keep people from being kicked out of their houses.

Over and over since the crisis, policy makers in both parties have remained optimistic that the U.S. economy was inherently dynamic and resilient enough that we could rely on growth to materialize from somewhere, as long as we put a solid floor underneath to contain the damage and prevent more negative shocks to the economy. Given the huge amounts being spent and our country’s history from past recessions, this was not an unreasonable approach at the time, especially for those with any concern for fiscal responsibility.

So far, the containment strategy has proved extremely successful in keeping us from sinking into a full-blown depression. However, at this point, we still have farther to go on the path to a sustainable recovery than most economists and politicians had hoped. This morning we got the new jobless numbers, and they aren’t good.  Wall Street was hoping for better news, and the markets’ negative reaction only compounds the growing anxiety (even allowing for the low volume in August, when stocks historically are more vulnerable to bad news). The extended string of bad economic news, coupled with a lack of credible cheerleading from Washington, is creating a palpable crisis of confidence in our economy and our leadership.

While the Fed is signaling between the lines that it may be prepared for stronger action, Congress and the President seem to be headed in the other direction. Campaign politics have lawmakers talking more about contractionary fiscal discipline than taking any new actions to boost the economy. Even in the debate about extending the Bush tax cuts, the options being considered do not include anything stimulative compared to the status quo. Congress has painted itself into a corner by waiting until taxes are automatically set to go up if it fails to act, and now it will likely be forced to extend most or all of them simply to avoid a contractionary fiscal outcome. Again, playing economic defense.

It’s time we think seriously about shifting gears and talking about reasonable stimulus again, instead of waiting for the next hole to plug. As Will Marshall has argued here, keeping public spending and debt under control is critically important, and Democrats need to talk openly about how we prepare for the day of reckoning when the spending claw-backs kick in, since Republicans have lost all credibility on fiscal discipline. However, growth is still the most urgent concern; the signals from bond-market vigilantes are telling us that, as Stan Collander argues well today.

There is a still a place in the debate for looking into additional stimulus, both on the tax side and with additional cost-effective spending. For example, public investment in infrastructure can be used to leverage private capital off the sidelines as well by making the private sector an active partner in stimulus efforts. Instead of continuing to put fingers in the dyke, we need to be more proactive in finding the companies in the private sector who want to rebuild the dyke, and put people and money to work again.

Photo Credit: OliBac’s Photostream