Why Are Good Policies Bad Politics?

BERKELEY – From the day after the collapse of Lehman Brothers last year, the policies followed by the United States Treasury, the US Federal Reserve, and the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been sound and helpful. The alternative – standing back and letting the markets handle things – would have brought America and the world higher unemployment than now exists. Credit easing and support of the banking system helped significantly by preventing much worse.

The fact that investment bankers did not go bankrupt last December and are profiting immensely this year is a side issue. Every extra percentage point of unemployment lasting for two years costs $400 billion. A recession twice as deep as the one we have had would have cost the US roughly $2 trillion – and cost the world as a whole four times as much.

In comparison, the bonuses at Goldman Sachs are a rounding error. And any attempt to make investment bankers suffer more last fall and winter would have put the entire support operation at risk. As Fed Vice Chairman Don Kohn said, ensuring that a few thousand investment bankers receive their just financial punishment is a non-starter when attempts to do so put the jobs of millions of Americans – and tens of millions outside the US – at risk.

The Obama administration’s fiscal stimulus has also significantly helped the economy. Though the jury is still out on the effect of the tax cuts in the stimulus, aid to states has been a job-saving success, and the flow of government spending on a whole variety of relatively useful projects is set to boost production and employment in the same way that consumer spending boosts production and employment.