Krugman: It's Bleak

Things to come

What’s going to happen, economically and politically, over the next few years? Nobody knows, of course. But I have a vision — what I think is the most likely course of events. It’s fairly grim — but not in the approved way. This vision lies behind a lot of what I’ve been writing, so it might clarify things for regular readers if I laid it out explicitly.

Start with the short-term economics. What we’re in right now is the aftermath of a giant financial crisis, which typically leads to a prolonged period of economic weakness — and this time isn’t different. A bolder economic policy early this year might have led to a turnaround, but what we actually got were half-measures. As a result, unemployment is likely to stay near its current level for a year or more.

And politically it’s hard to do anything about that. Those economic half-measures have landed the Obama administration in a trap: much of the political establishment now sees stimulus as having been discredited by events, so that it’s very hard to come back and scale the policy up to where it should have been in the first place. Also, with the apocalypse on hold, the deficit scolds have come back into their own, decrying any policy that actually involves spending money.

The result, then, will be high unemployment leading into the 2010 elections, and corresponding Democratic losses. These losses will be worse because Obama, by pursuing a uniformly pro-banker policy without even a gesture to popular anger over the bailouts, has ceded populist energy to the right and demoralized the movement that brought him to power.

Despite all this, the midterms probably won’t give Republicans the majority in the House. But the losses will be big enough to deny Obama a working majority for any major initiatives in the rest of his first term. (My guess is that he’ll be reelected thanks to the true awfulness of the Republican nominee). Since Republicans are dead set against any of the things I think could help pull the economy out of its rut, this means more economic stagnation.

Along with this will come a process of defining prosperity down. All the wise heads will tell us that 8 or 9 percent unemployment — maybe even 10 percent — is the “new normal”, and that only irresponsible people want to do anything about the situation.

So what I see is years of terrible job markets, combined with political paralysis.
I hope I’m wrong about all this. But my sense is that to have any hope of breaking out of this trap, Obama and company have to take risks — they have to propose new initiatives that might not pass, and be prepared to run against the do-nothing Republicans if the initiatives fail. That’s not happening now; as best as I can tell, the administration strategy is to insist that only a few minor course corrections are needed, and to wait for the jobs to start coming in.

Maybe they’ll get lucky. But hope is not a plan.

What can the rest of us do? Progressives have to keep the pressure on. The time for trusting the administration to do what’s necessary is past — all indications are that it won’t, not on its own. But maybe, just maybe, the president can be brought to see the danger he’s running by playing it safe.

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