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The Penultimate Day of a Dreary Eight Years

Today is President Barack Obama’s last full day in office, and it’s been a long wait. We were loudly grousing about the man back when he was first elected on a waft of hope that he was some sort of messiah, we groused again when he ran re-election on the argument that his opponent was some sort of devil, we’ve been grousing ever since, and we feel obliged to grouse once again as he leaves office with unaccountably high approval ratings.
Obama’s more die-hard admirers have already unleashed newspaper serials and hour-long video tributes and full-length hardcover books explaining how great he was, almost as great as promised back in the days when he was talking about how sea levels would fall and the national debt would decline and all that unpleasantness with Islam and the rest of the world would surely be worked out, but the case is hard to make at the moment when Donald Trump is about to be inaugurated as president.
All the testimonials point out how very bad the economy was when Obama took office, and how not -so-bad it is upon his departure, but we’ve paid enough attention that we’re not impressed. The economy was indeed in a deep recession starting some four or five months before Obama was inaugurated, but recessions always end and this was officially over before Obama could get his literally more-than-a-trillion-dollar “stimulus package” passed, and despite all the spending that had been added on top of the literally-more-than-a-trillion dollar Troubled Asset Relief Program that Obama and pretty much everyone else from both parties voted for the recovery has been the weakest on post-war record, and although the headline unemployment rate looks pretty good the broader measure that includes part-timers and the unemployed and those out of the workforce and is buried deep in story hasn’t fully yet fully recovered. Massive new regulations for the financial industry and a major government power grab of the health care sector almost certainly had something to do with the sluggishness, and what growth did occur can largely be attributed to an oil boom that Obama tried to thwart. There was also a stock market boom, but that was because the Federal Reserve kept pumping money that had nowhere to go but the stock market, where it naturally wound up exacerbating all that economic inequality that Obama had vowed to end with his tax hikes, and although he has Bill Clinton’s luck that the bubble won’t burst until the next administration we’re not counting it as a major accomplishment.
Accomplishments are even harder to find in Obama’s foreign policy, although that doesn’t stop his admirers from trying. No one dares say that Obama’s Libyan adventure or that “red line” he in drew in the Syrian sand have worked out at all, and his past “reset” appeasement of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is suddenly unfashionable in liberal circles, but they do try to cast the deal with Iran where we give them billions of dollars and they sort of pretend not to be building a nuclear bomb as a breakthrough victory. The decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq helped win Obama re-election, and after four years it gets occasional mention, although even his most ardent admirers must admit there have been unhappy consequences. Obama’s efforts on behalf of the European Union and Israel’s more liberal political parties and Latin America’s more Marxist types have not proved fruitful, China and Russia and Iran and all the usual troublemakers are more troublesome than they were eight years, and we can’t think of any of international relationships that have been improved. His most ardent admirers point to his good intentions, which we’ll conceded for the sake of argument, but the only thing that good intentions wins is a Nobel Peace Prize.
All the promises of a post-racial and post-partisan and altogether more tolerant society have also proved hollow. The past eight years of attempts to impose racial quotas on law enforcement and school discipline have made life more dangerous for many black Americans and understandably annoyed a lot of the white ones, Obama’s declared belief that politics is a knife fight and the Democrats should bring a gun and the Republicans can come along for the ride so long as they sit in the back of the bus because “I won” has heightened partisan acrimony, and although we’ve got the same sex marriages that Obama claimed to oppose in both of his runs he’s fueling the intolerance for anyone who doesn’t want to bake a cake for the ceremonies.
Although it’s good to at long last see it all come to an end after today, we expect the effects to linger for a while. The next president has already promised a more-than-a-trillion-dollars stimulus package, plenty more market interventions, health insurance for everybody that’s going to be cheaper and better than what was promised in Obamacare, and no messing around with those Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid entitlements that are the main drivers of the national debt. So far Trump’s Russian policies make Obama’s seem downright Truman-esque, and our erstwhile allies in Europe are as alarmed as ourselves, and although Trump also seems a friend of Israel we have no idea what he has in mind for the rest of the Middle East. As far as that hyper-partisan atmosphere of guns and knives and relegating enemies to the back of the bus and the might of an electoral victory making right, we see little improvement ahead.
We’ve already been grousing about Trump for more than a year now, and expect to do so for another four years or more, but we’ll always attribute some share of the blame to Obama. Those who cheered on Obama’s racialist and partisan and intolerant rhetoric should have known what they were bound to provoke, and those who cheered on the executive actions and bureaucratic harassment of political enemies are about to find out what it’s like to be on the receiving end, and despite all promises about making America great again none of us are likely to find out it works out any better than the Obama administration’s blather about hope and change.

— Bud Norman

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Five Long Years of Stimulation

Monday marked the fifth anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as “the stimulus,” but we did not observe the occasion with a celebration. What with the economy the way it is, and having failed to apply for any available federal funding, we could ill-afford a fancy party or a bottle of fine champagne.
There was a warm rush of nostalgia, however, as we recalled the giddy optimism that attended President Barack Obama’s lavishly ceremonial signing of the law. We were told that the law would cost a mere $800 billion, already a insignificant sum by Washington standards, and yet keep the unemployment rate from topping 8 percent and bring it down to 5 percent by 2013 with “shovel-ready jobs” while lifting two million Americans out of poverty and saving the world from global warming by creating a new “green energy” industry. Since then the cost has grown to $2 trillion, the unemployment rate hit 10.1 percent and stayed above 8 percent for four years before enough people finally gave up looking for a job to push it down to the current 6.6 percent, the poverty rate has risen to a 50 year high, the president has joked that the shovel-ready jobs were “not as shovel-ready as we expected,” and the “green jobs” that survived the bankruptcies of the subsidized companies turned out to cost about $5 million apiece. This winter’s wicked weather suggests some success in combating global warming, but otherwise an objective observer might reasonably conclude that all the optimism seems have been unfounded.
Still giddy after all these years, the law’s indefatigable apologists offer two lines of defense.
One is that even if the stimulus did not live up to its promises it did at least prevent the country from sliding into another Great Depression and the earth from sliding out of its orbit and into the sun. The White House economists did overstate the stimulative effect of the stimulus, according to this popular theory, but only because they had generously underestimated the damage done by the stinginess and de-regulatory zeal of that free-market-crazed cowboy George W. Bush. This ignores that only months before signing the stimulus into law Obama had criticized Bush’s “irresponsible” and “un-patriotic” budget deficits, and fails to name a single regulation Bush eliminated that might have caused the financial downturn, and conveniently omits any mention of the Clinton-era “affordable housing” policies and their sub-prime shenanigans that did in fact cause the crash, but it has the emotionally satisfying appeal of blaming Bush.
The other argument is that the stimulus failed to achieve its stated goals only because it was far too small. One might expect that a $2 trillion infusion of freshly-printed cash would be sufficient to stimulate some economic activity, especially if you throw in a third trillion from the Trouble Assets Relief Program passed just a few months earlier, but apparently not. The theory that if what you’re doing only seems to be making things worse you should do far more of it is not new, having been around at least since it informed the Roosevelt administration policies that prolonged the actual Great Depression for nine years before the massive stimulus program that was World War II came along, and its temptation to those handing out the money has not diminished over the years.
Neither of these arguments can be definitively disproved, as economics does not allow for the sorts of controlled laboratory experiments that would settle such questions in the harder sciences, but there does seem ample reason for a healthy skepticism. The notion that handing out a couple trillion dollars of Monopoly money to reliably Democratic constituencies is the only logical way to revive an economy has an inherently suspicious ring to it, and much of the stimulus money was spent in ways that are remarkably unproductive even by government standards.
Those cheeky iconoclasts at The Washington Free Beacon chose ten especially outrageous expenditures that illustrate the point. One program spent $389,357 to find why young men drink malt liquor and smoke marijuana, when we could have told them for a far more economical sum that it’s to in order to get drunk and high, and another spent $8,408 to find out if mice can get drunk, which could have been learned for the price of a mouse and a beer. Another spent $1.2 million on a University of California-San Francisco study of erectile dysfunction in overweight men, while Yale University was given $384, 949 to study duck penises. (This genital pre-occupation reminds of us an old bureaucracy joke too blue to repeat here, by the way, but if you’re interested shoot us an e-mail with proof that you’re of age in your state and we’ll pass it along.) Yet another $100,000 went to fund anti-capitalist puppet shows, a particularly peculiar way of promoting economic growth, and still another $600,000 was spent to plant trees in the wealthiest neighborhoods of Denver, which presumably offset the benefits to the hated rich with commensurate benefits to beloved and impoverished Mother Nature. If such wacky use of public funds does not convince you of the wisdom of the stimulus, perhaps the $1.3 million spent on signs advertising the benefits of the stimulus did the trick. Judging by the amount of Obamacare’s budget spent on advertising its blessings, the government seems quite convinced that you’ll fall for it again.
Which is not to say the apologists aren’t quite right, of course. Perhaps such spending did save the country from breadlines and a return to the hit parade for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” and perhaps it would have worked better yet if only we’d be willing to shell out a cool million for even more duck penis revelations, and there is no denying that the earth hasn’t slipped out of its orbit and into the sun. We can’t quite shake a nagging suspicion that Keynesian is bunk, and that like global warming it’s a scam to legitimize the government’s ravenous appetite for power, but if we could afford a fine bottle of champagne we’d drink it.

— Bud Norman