Funny how all the economists leaving the Obama administration seem to be saying the same thing:
What, then, is to be done? This is no time for fatalism or for traditional political agendas. The central irony of financial crisis is that while it is caused by too much confidence, borrowing and lending, and spending, it is only resolved by increases in confidence, borrowing and lending, and spending. Unless and until this is done other policies, no matter how apparently appealing or effective in normal times, will be futile at best.
The fiscal debate must accept that the greatest threat to our creditworthiness is a sustained period of slow growth. Discussions about medium-term austerity need to be coupled with a focus on near-term growth. Without the payroll tax cuts and unemployment insurance negotiated last autumn we might now be looking at the possibility of a double dip. Substantial withdrawal of fiscal stimulus at the end of 2011 would be premature. Stimulus should be continued and indeed expanded by providing the payroll tax cut to employers as well as employees. Raising the share of payroll from 2 per cent to 3 per cent is desirable, too. These measures raise the prospect of sizeable improvement in economic performance over the next few years.
At the same time we should recognise that it is a false economy to defer infrastructure maintenance and replacement, and take advantage of a moment when 10-year interest rates are below 3 per cent and construction unemployment approaches 20 per cent to expand infrastructure investment.
It is far too soon for financial policy to shift towards preventing future bubbles and possible inflation, and away from assuring adequate demand. The underlying rate of inflation is still trending downwards and the problems of insufficient borrowing and investing exceed any problems of overconfidence. The Dodd-Frank legislation is a broadly appropriate response to the challenge of preventing any recurrence of the events of 2008. It needs to be vigorously implemented. But under-, not overconfidence is the problem, and needs to be the focus of policy.
Policy in other dimensions should be informed by the shortage of demand that is a defining characteristic of our economy. The Obama administration is doing important work in promoting export growth by modernising export controls, promoting US products abroad and reaching and enforcing trade agreements. Much more could be done through changes in visa policy to promote exports of tourism as well as education and health services. Recent presidential directives regarding relaxation of inappropriate regulatory burdens should also be rigorously implemented.