We’re beginning to get a look at what happens when the subject of unemployment comes up at the White House. It ain’t reassuring. Jared Bernstein, formerly chief economic adviser to Vice President Biden, who left the Administration last month, says he “frequently” argued for forceful action to combat joblessness within the corridors of power. However, “There will be no WPA-type programs in our near future. There was no appetite for them in the Obama admin in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression and there’s a lot less now. The reasons for that are interesting and I’ll speak to them another day. But it ain’t happening.”
In his blog post May 29, Bernstein mildly and respectfully took economist Paul Krugman to task for constantly writing about what the government “should” do as opposed to what it can. The reason Washington can’t do more? It’s not in the cards politically. The Republicans are in the ascendency, he says and, “Yes, it’s true that leaders must stand up to such views and do what’s right for the economy…damn the torpedoes and all that. But those of us espousing such actions must respect, or at least acknowledge, that those torpedoes are not pointed at us.” Under such circumstances “there’s no point in even contemplating ‘coulds’.”
Krugman had also proposed “a serious program of mortgage modification, reducing the debts of troubled homeowners.” Forget about it said Bernstein who also had cautionary words for the editorial writers at the New York Times for arguing for such action. That ain’t happening either, he said.
Obviously in response, Krugman wrote last week:
“In pointing out that we could be doing much more about unemployment, I recognize, of course, the political obstacles to actually pursuing any of the policies that might work. In the United States, in particular, any effort to tackle unemployment will run into a stone wall of Republican opposition. Yet that’s not a reason to stop talking about the issue. In fact, looking back at my own writings over the past year or so, it’s clear that I too have sinned: political realism is all very well, but I have said far too little about what we really should be doing to deal with our most important problem.
“As I see it, policy makers are sinking into a condition of learned helplessness on the jobs issue: the more they fail to do anything about the problem, the more they convince themselves that there’s nothing they could do. And those of us who know better should be doing all we can to break that vicious circle.”
In a May 30 column, Krugman wrote that his mention of a WPA-type program was aimed “at the broader discourse, as well as the closed-door-off-the-record stuff I’ve been hearing from men in suits. Really bad analysis is posing as wisdom, and it needs to be called out.”
Bernstein is right about the determination of the opposition to serious job creation action. Stan Anderson, chair of the Chamber of Commerce’s Campaign for Free Enterprise, said in a letter to the Times. “Instead of making more government, such as creating Works Progress Administration-type programs, as Mr. Krugman suggests, we’d like to make government better so that creative free enterprise ideas can flourish in America again.” That’s about as ideologically callous as you can get.
“The president is going to be running for reelection in an economy that’s still too weak,” Bernstein acknowledged a few days later, after the May employment statistics were released. “It is improving and is in a far better place than it was when he got there but still is not adequately lifting the living standards of the broad middle class.”
Of course, while you might not sense it the way the major media tells the story, the important victim in this situation is not the President’s re-election prospect; it’s the jobless. Their plight would be just as serious regardless of who was running. cont’d on Page 2
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