Economic policy is largely being driven by obstructionism, not economic advisers

President Obama is reportedly planning to nominate economist Jason Furman to replace Alan Krueger as the head of the Council of Economic Advisers. Like Krueger and, for that matter, Austan Goolsbee and Christina Romer who previously served this administration in the same capacity, Furman boasts an impressive resume, with a Harvard economics doctorate as well as stints at the Brooking Institution, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), and the CEA under President Clinton, among others. If you’re still of the incorrect belief that tax cuts largely pay for themselves (looking at you, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), do yourself a favor and read his CBPP report explaining the mechanics and empirics of “dynamic scoring” (pdf) and why invoking it as a talisman doesn’t mean one can claim anything one finds politically expedient.

The Beltway coverage of this news is overly focused on the inside baseball politics between the CEA and the National Economic Council, where Furman has been serving as Deputy Director since January 2009. But it’s important to step back and remember that economic policy in recent years has been principally driven not by well-qualified economists with the CEA, NEC, or elsewhere in the executive branch, but instead by conservative congressional obstructionism. Jason Furman’s appointment to the CEA will not alter the troubling reality that the United States is on an autopilot course of premature, excessive austerity and intentionally poorly designed sequestration spending cuts. But even if the ghost of conservative saint Milton Friedman rose up and warned the GOP against such austerity, today’s conservatives in Congress would declare him an apostate and continue their destructive course.

Consequently, the U.S. economy will almost certainly continue muddling through an adverse equilibrium of anemic growth, severely depressed output, massive underemployment, large cyclical budget deficits, subdued price inflation, widespread real wage deflation and low interest rates. It’s really quite simple: a steep aggregate demand shortfall continues to keep the economy’s performance well below potential, and the Federal Reserve has been and will continue to be incapable of fully ameliorating this shortfall so long as contractionary fiscal policy is being pursued. (See this paper for a thorough treatment.)

In short, the intellectual debate over austerity vs. stimulus has been totally decoupled from the policy debate and, more importantly, policy outcomes in Washington—despite having been resolved in a virtual TKO by those opposed to foisting austerity on depressed economies. The United States doesn’t face, or, perhaps more accurately, no longer faces a deficit of economists capable of opening up an intermediate macroeconomics textbook and relearning liquidity trap/depression economics. But the U.S. Congress faces a depressing deficit of members who seem to care about empiricism or evidence-based policy, never mind their unemployed constituents.

My colleague Josh Bivens and I have chronicled the ways the GOP has routinely and frequently obstructed economic recovery since 2009—much of which should inform any debate this summer regarding much needed reform of the Senate’s filibuster rules, as well as the inevitable political fight over the debt ceiling. Conservatives, particularly the Tea Party caucus, are to blame for exploiting every piece of leverage available (including the nation’s credit worthiness) to extract premature spending cuts, filibustering just about anything that would boost aggregate demand, watering down the Recovery Act, hamstringing monetary policy and demanding counterproductive legislative ‘pay fors’—stipulated to never, ever include revenue increases. The frequently espoused pox-on-both houses punditry is not just off-base, but is also somewhat complicit in this sad state of affairs.

Does it matter who advises the president? Absolutely. But the distressing state of the U.S. economy is, at root, a failure of our representative democracy and institutions to hold Congress accountable for its decisions preventing economic recovery, not a failure of technical advice given to the president. Realistically, the Constitution and budgetary process outlook afford the administration scant leverage to force more deficit-financed government spending, the most effective policy lever for digging out of this Lesser Depression. Under this backdrop, the United States needs more than qualified economic advisers to the president—a majority of representatives and (barring meaningful filibuster reform) super-majority of senators who heed evidence, as well as a press corps holding them accountable, jump to mind.


  • Ronald Pires

    Excellent commentary, although I might suggest that a Harvard economics PhD has lost a lot of its luster of late, representing as it does an orthodoxy of macroeconomic thought that did not and could not even foresee the largest economic event since the Great Depression. It’s time to stop coddling these folks simply because theirs was once a proud pedigree. They are peddling a broken macroeconomics, and it’s time they got around to admitting it.