James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Should Obama get credit for ending the recession?

Jun 3, 2009 14:07 UTC

Mustard seeds (or green shoots, if your prefer) are appearing everywhere, from credit markets to manufacturing to housing. And of course the 40 percent surge in the U.S. stock market since mid-March is hard to miss.

So here’s a question: If the American economy shifts back into growth mode this year, does Barack Obama deserve the credit? Now if you click over to Recovery.gov, you’ll see that the U.S. government has paid out roughly $37 billion in funds from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That’s not too much dough for a $14 trillion economy. And while 110 million households will eventually receive some $55 billion from the Making Work Pay tax credit, that money has only been popping up in paychecks since April 1.

Now compare the Obama fiscal stimulus to the money stimulus of the Federal Reserve. As described by Brian Wesbury and Bob Stein at First Trust Advisers: “Money supply measures are surging – in the past six months, M1 is up 25.2% at an annual rate, currency outstanding is up 15.4%, checking account balances are up 74.2%, and M2 is up 15.9%. To top this off, the Fed has … $1 trillion plan to basically print money and buy assets including treasury bonds.” Also note the language of Richard Fisher, president of the Dall Fed, in speech yesterday: “We have succeeded in pulling the economy back from the brink. We’ve come back from the abyss.”

Of course, the bigger question is whether voters in the 2010 midterm elections will view Obamanomics as a success. Let me know what the November 2010 unemployment rate is, and I will give you an answer.


My indication would be how many U.S. Republican senators are going to be vulnerable to the Obama effect, you know all that “Time for Change” stuff, we’d have to look at all the Republican senators from 2006, what were the voting results and who did they run against. My Theory would be a number of these guys would lose their seats, Democratics could easily be up to 68-69 going into 2012. The Obama effect could still be there and alot of these Senators that didn’t have to worry about the tidal wave of Democratic support could still be lingering in 2010. Where is my generations Reagan???? whimper whimper…

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Obama’s ‘Moonstruck’ healthcare plan

Jun 2, 2009 14:22 UTC

The White House released an economic analysis of the economic benefits of healthcare reform. After skimming it, I am reminded of this classic scene from 1987 film “Moonstruck” where the economics of plumbing are explained:

There are three kinds of pipe. There is what you have, which is garbage and you can see where that’s gotten you. Then there’s bronze, which is very good unless something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. And then there’s copper, which is the only pipe I use. It costs money. It costs money because it saves money.

Or as Team Obama might put it:

There are three kinds of healthcare systems. There is what you have, which is garbage and you can see where that’s gotten you. Then there’s the GOP free market system, which is very good unless something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. And then there’s Obamacare, which is the system America should use. It costs money. It costs money because it saves money.

Me: The White House says healthcare reform is a bundle of goodies: a) 500,000 new jobs a year, b) an average increase of $2,600 in income for a family of four in 2020 and $10,000 by 2030, c) $100 billion in economic gain by insuring the currently uninsured. Oh, and lower long-term budget deficits. And here is where my movie analogy breaks down: the White House never actually says healthcare reform is going to require new spending.


Back home in Canada, healthcare is better and it’s free. Per capita cost of healthcare is lower too, as is in all countries that have universal healthcare. Insurance companies are just an unnecessary middleman, if Obama squeezes them out then you’re right — we all save money.

Deficit worries and the 2010 election

Jun 2, 2009 13:12 UTC

My pal Stan Collender offers a must-read blog post over at Capital Gains and Games. But because I am a journalist, let me point out one portion that I take issue with:

Third, if the unambiguous signs that the economy has recovered exist in 2010 as many now expect they will, the biggest economic issue going into the Congressional elections may well be federal borrowing, interest rates and inflation, and the deficit will be blamed for everything considered wrong with any or all of them. That makes it imperative that Congressional Republicans and Democrats start to move quickly to stake a claim to deficit reduction if the issues that may be dominating the business and financial headlines when voters next go to the polls are all blamed on too much red ink.

Me: I think the number one issue will be only tangentially deficit related, something along the lines of “We just spend trillions in  borrowed money and unemployment is still at 10 percent.”

Obama’s GM=Technonationalism?

Jun 2, 2009 00:39 UTC

Here is an interesting take on the GM nationalization from David Warsh via his review of the book
The Venturesome Economy: How Innovation Sustains Prosperity in a More Connected World

The burden of the argument of Venturesome Economy is that that an inevitable expansion is taking place in the quantity of high-level know-how that is being developed in countries around the world – not just Japan and Korea, but India and China, Israel and Australia. If the US learns to relax and take advantage of new knowledge developed offshore, everything will be fine. But if “technonationalism” gains the upper hand – in the form of, say, a commitment to a strong US automotive industry, no matter what the cost – then a world carved into trading spheres could experience slower growth than otherwise would be the case.


Hello,from Greece,I do agree. The big picture is that in the global system new centers of growth are already there.We have to understand that the new era will be multi central, even though the US superpower can win some more games by the monetary influence it still has. The Asian giants are waking up and through time they are building the necessary power to sit as equal to the governing table of the world. It might be stressful for us in the EU & US, but they have all the economic factors (labor, money, culture, knowledge, will to work,etc) to build a win-win situation. Thanks, Adamopoulos George, economics.

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A liberal dream plan for GM

Jun 1, 2009 17:56 UTC

MIchael Moore makes the following minor and humble suggestions to the White House about what it should do with its 60 percent stake in General Motors. Some excerpts:

1. Just as President Roosevelt did after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the President must tell the nation that we are at war and we must immediately convert our auto factories to factories that build mass transit vehicles and alternative energy devices.  … President Obama, now that he has taken control of GM, needs to convert the factories to new and needed uses immediately.

2. Don’t put another $30 billion into the coffers of GM to build cars. Instead, use that money to keep the current workforce — and most of those who have been laid off — employed so that they can build the new modes of 21st century transportation. Let them start the conversion work now.

3. Announce that we will have bullet trains criss-crossing this country in the next five years

4. Initiate a program to put light rail mass transit lines in all our large and medium-sized cities. Build those trains in the GM factories. And hire local people everywhere to install and run this system.

5. For people in rural areas not served by the train lines, have the GM plants produce energy efficient clean buses.

6. For the time being, have some factories build hybrid or all-electric cars (and batteries).

7. Transform some of the empty GM factories to facilities that build windmills, solar panels and other means of alternate forms of energy.

8. Provide tax incentives for those who travel by hybrid car or bus or train. Also, credits for those who convert their home to alternative energy.

9. To help pay for this, impose a two-dollar tax on every gallon of gasoline.

Me:  I am not sure what is more far fetched, this plan or the belief that Obama would actually try and implement anything as radical as this plan. Just take a look at the way Obama is letting his cap-and-trade plan get watered down. Folks like Moore really don’t understand the guy they voted for.


I was out west this spring and driving about in my vintage 2001 Saturn when I decided that it was up to me to keep the promise of America’s automobile industry alive – so I tried to a dealer owned coop to save Saturn. This was a dangerous moment as I had not been authorized by anyone involved in making, shipping, selling or storing Saturns. In fact, I have had nothing whatsoever to do with the car industry except to persist as a committed “try to buy American” consumer. It would be nice if others among the original sold on Saturn buyers joined me and raised a protest about GM’s disposal plans for one the last great car brands made in the USA.

To some degree this mad adventure had something to do with the wild west. There I was in a setting that has been sending natural resources including raw minerals and livestock overseas where manufacturers convert them into products for us to import and buy. It seemed to me that this time we wouldn’t be bothering to ship anything of a made in America nature, we’d just let foreign manufacturers step in, extract the value of the Saturn name and make that once great manufacturing venture part of the growing trend to colonize the world for a multi-national corporation.

I had heard that GM’s executives were preparing for bankruptcy and that they had decided to stand back, stay quiet and let one of the nation’s premiere auto brands be plundered. Even knowing this, I still found it shocking to learn that India’s Tata Motors was among number of serious contenders for the Saturn brand. It was prepared to buy out the brand and take on the dealerships in order to have speedy access to a far reaching and friendly national distribution system. Saturn would thus become an outlet for cheap, fuel efficient Indian made minicars. Alternative American proposals were not much better. Mega scale car dealers like Oklahoma‘s Moore family and Michigan’s Roger Penske are also trying to buy the brand so that they can convert Saturn’s franchise operators into sales centers for other small cars made offshore.

Tata might not be a household word in the continental US but it is an enterprise that has put much of India’s enormous middle class on wheels. Less we forget, this is a population bigger that of the USA today and as hungry for foreign oil as we are. Their little $2,000 yellow and red cars are likely to start moving people onto roads here sometime this year and it would be a pity to see them carry the Saturn label to a depth lower than the level GM imposed.

As it happened, GM introduced Saturn to do what TaTa did in India. It was trying to capitalize on demands by first time car buyers for low-cost, fuel efficient cars . An oil production crisis in the 1970s had made Americans aware of how their gas guzzling ways could expose the entire nation to economic disaster. They saw Saturn as a way to attract consumers who were showing preferences for Japanese and German cars that were fuel efficient and long lasting – two qualities that were not Detroit made autos strong suits.

The early generation of Saturns were aimed at buyers like me – first time women car buyers who knew nothing about what went on under a car hood but wanted a assurance that their dealer would. In fact, I was among the early cult of satisfied Saturn owners and though I never attended one of the early “owner reunions” at its Tennesee plant, I did feel a strong allegiance to the brand and to the people at its dealers who kept true to their promises of easy maintenance and reliable service. It is a pity that more of those contented consumers didn’t stand up to GM as I have in these past few days. I would love to see more visit dealers to ask them to get together as a group and form a coop to make a new generation of different American cars.

My enthusiasm for the car had started in 1989 when I had a chance to visit a prototype for Saturn’s pilot plant that had been set up in Detroit. It was clear then that it was a different kind of car company. GM had learned from studying Japan’s Demming quality control principles. Their attention then to consumers’ concerns was effective. Nearly ten years after early, long-lasting models stopped being made, people still think well of the brand and of the dealers selected to represent it. Some of those early 90s models are still on the road, chugging along with their original engines, power trains, plastic body panels and brilliantly engineered chasis.

I bought my first in 1991 and had three others over the next ten years. They were terrific cars and the dealers that sold them all appeared to me to be honest and reasonable. They were true believers in the company’s ability and ready to hear and act on concerns and recommendations that their customers shared. I think if customers showed up at their doors and told them they would be back if the cars were made here in the USA again they might be prodded to get the help they need to take over the brand and its production.

I also think that labor unions should get on board about this. One of the best parts of the dog and pony show I was treated to when I toured that pilot plant years ago were discussions by management and labor about how they were going to relax old rules, work better together and find ways to continuously improve the Saturn. They said they were determined to offer American drivers alternatives to the high pressure purchasing practices of other car dealerships and put sales people on salaries to assure high levels of customer service. They did that and more.

Within just a few years of its introduction, Saturn consumers ratings were sky high and the relatively low priced little cars from Tennessee met and surpassed customer satisfaction ratings given to higher priced and bigger luxury cars. Profit margins were low but consistent. This wasn’t good enough for the high rollers in Detroit that needed giant profits to attract and hold investors and pay enormous salaries to high level GM Executives.

So Saturn’s innovation era ended and it became just another branded GM product line.

I stopped buying when the rules changed. So did lots of others. After 2001, Saturn became little more than a retailer of Renault and Opal cars. Dealers no longer stood alone and the once fabled Spring Hill factory was no longer the exclusive producer of Saturn cars. Unique, innovative design standards were gone and the attributes that distinguished my last plastic sided model were no longer to be found.

In my view, Detroit’s feudal systems wore out the company. Its inability to accept low profits as a return on its early stage investments has killed it. Saturn dealers are an endangered species. Their lots are holding grounds for a dead brand and remaining Saturn cars dramatically depreciating in value. Highly leveraged dealers have been left holding the goods. More than 10 percent of Saturn dealers have already closed their doors and when you go into showrooms as I have done since last week, you feel like you have come upon a cohort of mourners getting ready for bankruptcy and job changes. GM has done little to stop the hemorrhaging and in fact opened new wounds with announcements that it would receive offers for Saturn up at the end of spring and would then decide how to dispose of its brand assets while reorganizing through a possible bankruptcy.

All of these ruminations have of course made possible by American taxpayers who have thrown a few trailer loads of dollars into GM to keep it afloat. But imagination and innovation are in short supply among that company’s senior level managers. Because of this, I decided it was up to eager beavers like me and other old time Saturn owners to keep the rings of a unique American car turning. So I turned to my friends the cooperators to figure out how. There is a new, 21st century type of cooperative that a few enterprises like Organic Valley Yogurt, True Value Hardware and Carpet One flooring stores are using to beat out competitors. Stakeholders with property, production capabilities and shared needs band together to purchase product, secure supplies, institute management standards and jointly assure consumers that the promise of a brand name message will be met. Simple enough….they have numbers large enough to press down margins set by producers and service providers and pass those on to the people who buy from them.

In a few cases, these new types of coops actually have a hand in manufacturing. That is where I think the focus of an effort to save Saturn should be and where consumers should focus their arguments to keep Saturn going. We need to be able to make high quality, innovative cars here in the USA. Saturn has shown us that it could do that when it isn’t tethered to GM. It still has the capacity to outperform offshore manufacturers and can apply what we now know about alternative fuels and power trains to new car designs.

Despite consumer demands for alternative cars and the standing lines that formed for Japanese hybrids, GM chose to ignore Saturn’s potential to deliver on these technologies. It forced Saturn to become a conventional car brand and devalued its potential for innovation because earnings didn’t reach stratospheric heights that GM executive demanded. When franchise owners were pulled into the GM fold, the buffer that their Saturn rings had once created collapsed. A cooperative could put them back in place and a clamor of hold the line from consumers could give stakeholders time to form one.

If the dealers did come together with the intentions of serving as sponsors and outlets for alternative energy powered cars, they just might be able to outbid contenders like Roger Penskie, TaTa and the Oklahoma Moore Familys Black Oak Partners LLC. With help from local legislators, cooperative investor resources, rural utility funds, and even US Treasury assisted GMAC Finance, they could raise capital needed to make a downpayment on America’s automotive future. They could again work cooperatively with labor and sell off their current GM produced inventory with commitments to extend their warranties and stand solidly behind them. Most importantly enlist a new cohort of alternative energy minded engineers work with the US Department of Energy to create new cars that will in fact put more rings around Saturn. If we don’t, we are sure to see the stimulus money being paid out to keep Americans buying go into the hands of offshore manufacturers who have taken our know how and sold it back to us at premium prices. So, my challenge to Saturn is wake up, get organized, and cooperatively work for a revival that our country needs and deserves. As crazy as it sounds, listen to your buyers and keep going.

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Rising oil prices and the economy

Jun 1, 2009 17:41 UTC

Here is an an interesting nugget from the recent congressional testimony of economist/blogger James Hamilton about what rising oil prices will for the U.S. economy in the coming year (bold is mine):

Retail gasoline prices have risen about 50 cents-a-gallon from their low in December. That takes away about $70 billion from consumers’ annual spending power, which is hardly helpful for the broader challenge of restoring household balance sheets to a level where spending could be expected to pick back up. But let me emphasize that although I believe that the initial spike in oil prices was an important element of the process that produced our current difficulties, we are currently at a point at which the multipliers and spillovers associated with the recession dynamic itself have become far more important factors than the price of oil…. Notwithstanding, the recent rise in oil prices again underscores the present reality of the long-run challenges. Even if we see significant short-run gains in global oil production capabilities, if demand from China and elsewhere returns to its previous rate of growth, it will not be too long before the same calculus that produced the oil price spike of 2007-08 will be back to haunt us again.

Of interest rates and budget deficits

Jun 1, 2009 17:30 UTC

Amidst all the talk about bond vigilantes and Obamanomics, JPMorgan economist Jim Glassman makes a good point about the murky relationship between interest rates and budget defiticts:

A quick review of history underscores the weak link between debt levels and interest rates. The US federal debt outstanding surged during World War II from 40% of GDP to 110% by the end of the war. That ratio came down to 25% by the early 1980s, amid a secular rise in interest rates. Then from that time through the mid-1990s, the debt-to-GDP ratio climbed steadily even as interest rates came down in what is now referred to as the Great Disinflation. Japan’s experience is even more striking, with its debt now 170% of GDP and yet Japan’s interest rates are the lowest of any industrial economy. Debt burdens are important, if they are a reflection of underlying mismanagement of fiscal policy. But clearly the interest rate story is more complex. Usually, cyclical swings in the economy, which undermine fiscal balance, are the main act for interest rates.


oops– forgot “recovery”after nascent.

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Does Obama really believe GM can survive?

Jun 1, 2009 17:13 UTC

President Obama struck an optimistic note today on the New GM:

I am absolutely confident that if well managed, a new GM will emerge that can provide a new generation of Americans with the chance to live out their dreams, that can out-compete automakers from around the world. When that happens, we can truly say that what is good for General Motors, and all who work there, is good for the United States of America.

Me: Another theory, though, is proposed by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.  He was just speaking on CNBC and speculated that what Team Obama is really doing is slowing down the death process so communities and workers and the economy have more time to adjust to GM’s demise. So there you go …

Poll: Blame Bush not Obama for recession

Jun 1, 2009 17:02 UTC

From Rasmussen:

President Obama contends he inherited the nation’s ongoing economic problems and that his actions since taking office are not to blame. Sixty-two percent (62%) of U.S. voters agree with the president that the problems are due to the recession that began under the Bush administration.

Just 27% of voters say the problems are being caused more by the policies Obama has put in place since taking office, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Ten percent (10%) are not sure which president is more to blame.

Me: This is a poll I will be closely watching as the unemployment rate continues to rise, perhaps deep into next year. How deep is Obama’s reservoir of goodwill with the public?


I, for the love of God, just cant explain all this giddiness{if that’s a word},in the markets around the world.Obama’s policies will cripple the economy,the math doesn’t add up.Bush may have started the problem rolling,but Obama gave it a shove down the hill.Will the American public keep up the love affair with the dem’s when they are asked to pay double or triple for their home energy use?I just don’t see how we as a nation are going to pay for all the new spending and re-regulation that’s coming.I think we are being”rope-a-doped”,the piper that should have been paid in the early part of this decade,will have to be paid.Tomorrow’s bill will sink us!What about the state and local level?Taxes are going through the roof,look no further than the union controlled school boards.Local pol’s are falling all over themselves trying to keep up with their already strained,bloated,union backed employee’s underfunded pension requirement’s.Not a peep from the bond market here,where’s the bond market vigaliante’s when you need them?This just can’t end well.As for the original question,just what is driving this rally in the global market’s?Two word’s,fear and greed.Isn’t that what got us into this mess to begin with?I pray our capitalist society can survive….
Jerry Stewart

Posted by Jerry Stewart | Report as abusive

Can Free Marketeers Embrace Obama’s GM?

Jun 1, 2009 16:27 UTC
Certainly most of the free market/conservative/libertarian types I chat with are in a tizzy about the General Motors bankruptcy — or, to put it more accurately, the 60 percent government ownership of GM once it emerges from its quickie bankruptcy. Government Motors. But is there a free market case for the Obama auto bailout? Here is what I was able to gin up:

1) GM is a victim of circumstances. At least a little bit. For all its problems, GM would not be in such a financial fix if not for the once-in-a-century collapse of the credit markets and resulting deep recession. Of course, Toyota and Honda and Ford also have to deal with the terrible economic climate. But the tight credit markets made that much more difficult for private investors to come in and turn around the company had it been allowed to sink into bankruptcy back in late 2008.

2) A straight bankruptcy might have even been costlier to Uncle Sam and taxpayers. This was the argument of White House auto adviser Brian Deese when he argued against the liquidation of Chrysler. As reported by the NYT: “Mr. Deese was not the only one favoring the Fiat deal, but his lengthy memorandum on how liquidation would increase Medicaid costs, unemployment insurance and municipal bankruptcies ended the debate. “

A similar analysis comes from IHS Global Insight in a research note:

Six months ago, the George W. Bush administration was winding down, the government had no significant support for the automotive industry, and most politicians were advocating no assistance at all for GM and Chrysler, preferring to let the bankruptcy process happen. An uncontrolled bankruptcy at GM would have cost over US$100 billion, pensions would have been transferred to the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., and the likelihood of a reorganisation without any financial support from the still-frozen financial markets would have quickly been replaced with talk of liquidation.

3) Bankruptcy would have made the terrible U.S. economy far worse. By some estimate, a GM liquidation would have added a full percentage point to the unemployment rate, if not more. This reason has swayed conservative jurist/blogger Richard Posner:
If I am right that the domestic producers should not be allowed to collapse at a time of profound and, it appears, worsening economic distress.  … The realistic goal of an auto-industry bailout is not to reform, revitalize, or restructure the domestic industry; it is merely to postpone its bankruptcy for a year or two, until the end of the depression is at least in sight and consumer confidence is restored to the point at which the bankruptcy of the domestic manufacturers can be taken in stride.
Me: Now I doubt my pal Larry Kudlow would buy any of this:
Instead of putting the failed car enterprise into bankruptcy six months ago — where Carl Icahn or Wilbur Ross could have bought it — the Bush administration chose Bailout Nation. Under Team Obama, that bailout has morphed into full-scale government ownership. Twenty-billion dollars of TARP money is already invested in GM, with another $50 billion on the way. And that number could easily double unless GM car sales miraculously climb back to 14 million this year. That’s highly unlikely, with car sales presently hovering around 9 million a year. … But it’s the bigger picture that has me most concerned. What does Government Motors say about the direction of the United States? Historically, we don’t own car companies –or banks or insurance firms. But we do now. Tick them off on your fingers: GM, Citi, AIG. Oh, and let’s not forget Fannie and Freddie, those, big quasi-government, taxpayer-owned housing agencies. California is broke and likely headed to bankruptcy. Will we the taxpayers own that, too?