Keep your eyes on the gap between what the economy could produce at full employment and the paltry level of aggregate demand (consumers plus businesses plus exports). That’s why the stimulus is too small — and why my bet is the President will be back for more stimulus. The Commerce Department reported Friday that the economy contracted in the fourth quarter of 2008 more sharply than initially estimated. Consumers cut spending the most in over 28 years. Businesses cut way back as well. Exports were dead in the water.
All told, according to the new data, the nation’s economy shrank at an annual rate of 6.2 percent. Last month, the government’s preliminary estimate of the drop in fourth-quarter GDP was only 3.8 percent. Roughly half the Commerce Department’s revision was due to a sharper drop in business spending than had been anticipated. As a result, business inventories — the amount of stuff they they have on hand to sell — have dropped.
That’s good news because eventually businesses will have to replace their inventories, in anticipation of at least some consumer buying, and such replacement spending will spur the economy. But here’s the bad news: Inventories still aren’t dropping as fast as sales are dropping, suggesting even less business spending and investing coming up.
There’s no reason to suppose the first quarter of 2009 will be any better, and lots of reason to think it will be worse. Government is spender of last resort. We’re at the last resort now. $787 billion over two years, and only two-thirds of it real spending, is way below what will be needed to get the economy moving back toward full capacity. Do Republicans know this? Is this why they’re continuing to bet that the economy won’t be recovering by November, 2010, and why they’re going to continue to say no?
by Robert Reich
Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.
This article first appeared on Robert Reich’s Blog. Republished with permission