Friday, November 21, 2008

How Much Damage Can Be Done Before Obama Takes Office?

The economic prospects of this country are getting worse everyday, and the current administration seems content to sit back and do nothing. This transition period, before the new administration officially takes power, has caused problems before, way back in 1932, and we all saw how that turned out. It makes you wonder, just how much can the current administration further mess things up before Obama takes power? Economics professor Mark Thoma looks at an opinion piece from Paul Krugman on the topic in his blog post from Economist's View.

The outlook for the economy is deteriorating, yet economic policy "seems to have gone on vacation":

The Lame-Duck Economy, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Everyone’s talking about a new New Deal, for obvious reasons. In 2008, as in 1932, a long era of Republican political dominance came to an end in the face of an economic and financial crisis that, in voters’ minds, both discredited the G.O.P.’s free-market ideology and undermined its claims of competence. And for those on the progressive side of the political spectrum, these are hopeful times.

There is, however, another and more disturbing parallel between 2008 and 1932 — namely, the emergence of a power vacuum at the height of the crisis. The interregnum of 1932-1933, the long stretch between the election and the actual transfer of power, was disastrous for the U.S. economy, at least in part because the outgoing administration had no credibility, the incoming administration had no authority and the ideological chasm between the two sides was too great to allow concerted action. And the same thing is happening now. ...

How much can go wrong in the two months before Mr. Obama takes the oath of office? The answer, unfortunately, is: a lot. ... The prospects for the economy look much grimmer now than they did as little as a week or two ago.

Yet economic policy, rather than responding to the threat, seems to have gone on vacation. In particular, panic has returned to the credit markets, yet ... Henry Paulson ... has announced that he won’t even go back to Congress for the second half of the $700 billion already approved for financial bailouts. And financial aid for the beleaguered auto industry is being stalled by a political standoff. ...

What’s really troubling ... is the possibility that some of the damage being done right now will be irreversible. I’m concerned, in particular, about the two D’s: deflation and Detroit.

About deflation: Japan’s “lost decade” in the 1990s taught economists that it’s very hard to get the economy moving once expectations of inflation get too low (it doesn’t matter whether people literally expect prices to fall). Yet there’s clear deflationary pressure on the U.S. economy right now, and every month that passes without signs of recovery increases the odds that we’ll find ourselves stuck in a Japan-type trap for years.

About Detroit: There’s now a real risk that, in the absence of quick federal aid, the Big Three automakers and their network of suppliers will be forced ... to shut down, lay off all their workers and sell off their assets. And if that happens, it will be very hard to bring them back.

Now, maybe letting the auto companies die is the right decision, even though an auto industry collapse would be a huge blow to an already slumping economy. But it’s a decision that should be taken carefully, with full consideration of the costs and benefits — not a decision taken by default, because of a political standoff between Democrats who want Mr. Paulson to use some of that $700 billion and a lame-duck administration that’s trying to force Congress to divert funds from a fuel-efficiency program instead.

Is economic policy completely paralyzed between now and Jan. 20? No, not completely. Some useful actions are being taken. For example, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ... have taken the helpful step of declaring a temporary halt to foreclosures, while Congress has passed a badly needed extension of unemployment benefits now that the White House has dropped its opposition.

But nothing is happening on the policy front that is remotely commensurate with the scale of the economic crisis. And it’s scary to think how much more can go wrong before Inauguration Day.

This article has been reposted from Economist's View. The full post can also be viewed on Economist's View.

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