Thursday, January 8, 2009

Trillions and Trillions

Carl Sagan only talked about “Billions and Billions” of heavenly bodies out there in the universe.

Barack Obama, President-elect, talks about “Trillions and Trillions.”

That’s Federal budget deficits, of course.

The Federal Government, according to the President-elect, is going to have to spend and spend and create these kinds of deficits if it is to side-track the economic downturn and put people back to work.

Paul Krugman, a supporter of this kind of spending, in his New York Times column on Monday, “Fighting Off Depression” (, makes the following statement: “This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression. So will we “act swiftly and boldly” enough to stop that from happening?”

Bush 43, during his reign, created more debt than all the administrations before him. So what is new in the Obama approach? Just size?

One of the things that is new is that the people coming into the Obama government believe in an active government and the ‘planned’ use of the budget to stimulate the economy. The Bush 43 team did not.

As I have said before, the Bush 43 team reminded me of the Nixon team that administered wage and price controls in the 1971-72 period. I remember very distinctly sitting in the room in the White House with George Schultz, Arthur Burns, Maury Stans, and others, watching these people administer wage and price controls with their noses turned up in disgust, doing the last thing in the world they believed in or wanted to do…control wages and prices.

This is the same feeling I got from Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke…they really did not philosophically believe in what they were doing and really did not want to be doing what they were doing. And, as a consequence, they were not very good at it.

The general approach taken by Paulson and Bernanke in the financial crises was…throw “stuff” against the wall and see how much of it sticks. The important thing was to throw enough “stuff” at the problem so that enough will stick so as to defuse the crises. In performing in this way they did not look like they knew what they were doing…try this…no, try that…no, let’s do it this way…they were not disciplined…more is better…and they did not inspire much confidence.

Now we have a team coming into power that believes in the use of the fiscal tools they are going to inherit and they have confidence that they can use them in a productive way. This is the difference between the Obama team and the Bush 43 team. How the Obama team executes their plans is very important because both international and domestic financial markets need to have confidence in the United States administration, something they have not had for at least seven years.

The lack of confidence in the Bush 43 administration was exhibited in the relatively steady, six year decline in the value of the United States dollar, a decline in value of more than 40%. This lack of confidence grew out of the undisciplined way Bush 43 conducted the monetary and fiscal policies of the country. This lack of discipline in the Federal government set the tone for a growing lack of discipline in financial practices. International markets proved to be correct in that the whole financial structure built upon government, as well as private, debt and inflationary bubbles ultimately crashed.

To recover…confidence must be rebuilt!

This is why the appearance (and reality) of discipline is vital! Yes, the Obama team is proposing deficits that will be measured in the trillions. But, the spending and tax cuts that produce these large deficits must not be just throwing ‘stuff’ against the wall. There must be well thought out reasons for the expenditures and tax relief…there must be oversight and controls to accompany the programs…and there must be thought given to what is going to happen to all this spending and deficits once the corner is turned and the economy and the financial markets stabilize.

I know that this is asking a lot…yet, it was the lack of discipline that got us into the current situation…and, the only long term way to get us out of the current situation is to re-establish discipline over what is being done. If there is little or no discipline in what the Obama administration proposes…confidence will erode…and relatively quickly…and markets will continue to tank. Market support will only come from a belief in the commitment and execution of a believable plan.

The major parts of the Obama spending programs seem reasonable…build infrastructure, health care reform, education, and investment in new energy programs. Major emphasis on these things, however, is not “quick fix” solutions. They represent a commitment not only to government spending, but also to investments in the future that can build intellectual and social capital.

Economists have contended that government spending during the Great Depression never reached a level to really stimulate the economy until the spending connected with World War II came along. But, one of the benefits of the government spending during that war period was all of the innovations and new applications that resulted from the spending and ended up in new industries and further innovation in the post-war period that spurred on economic growth in the future. That is, the government spending did not just support the existing, out-of-date industrial structure of the 1930s (like our current car industry), but created the basis for a new structure, new jobs, and a new life.

There is still concern that the fiscal programs being proposed will have the desired effect on the economy and the financial markets. It has still not been proven that government spending can be substituted for private spending in order to create sustainable growth and permanent jobs. In has still not been proven that the world can absorb all of the government debt that is being created. It has still not been proven that the government can generate all of these deficits and not end up monetizing a large portion of them.

There is still a lot of uncertainty.

Financial markets want to believe in the Obama administration. Financial markets want to believe that the Obama team is competent. Financial markets want to believe that the economic package that is being constructed will work. Financial markets want to see discipline re-established.

However, the numbers are so large…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why So Much Money?

A lot of people have supported Obama's Presidential campaign. They have high hopes from this man, who has risen from obscurity to assume leadership of the most powerful nation of the world.
However, one thing that has left a lot of people confused is that why has there been a requirement for so much of money to run his campaign? Sure such things need money, but so much of it? ……… that’s a point to consider.
After all, at a time, when America is facing the worst possible, shouldn’t political campaigns and other such things have been a bit low profile so that the common man got his three square meals. In such a scenario, doubts of a fund raising racket do crop in the mind. But for now, let’s just pray that our hard-earned money has been put to good use and our new president will bring back the lost glory of our nation