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Why don't politicians fear unemployment?

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Brad DeLong wonders why good macroeconomic policies make for bad politics. That's the wrong question, I think. Insofar as Barack Obama is not operating amidst 20 percent unemployment and riots, the economic interventions have worked pretty well to preserve the president's high numbers. Barack Obama's ambient popularity can hang above 50 percent because the economy hasn't totally fallen apart. Jack unemployment up five points and Obama isn't so popular.

But just because the situation isn't as bad as it could be, doesn't mean it isn't pretty bad. Bad and unpopular, in fact. So it's easy to see why voters aren't terribly impressed by policies that they thought would make it not bad. The fact that we avoided an economic collapse the electorate couldn't really imagine doesn't mean we've settled at an equilibrium they can support.

What confuses me is why politicians aren't as afraid of unpopular conditions as unpopular votes. It seems far safer to be running for reelection in a world with 9 percent unemployment that's clearly trending downward even if you have to defend a 2009 vote for another stimulus package than to run for reelection in a world where unemployment is holding steady around 12 percent. But they don't seem to see it that way. The best explanation I can come up with is that they don't fundamentally believe another stimulus will work quickly enough or clearly enough for them to derive any benefit from it, and they further think that it will look worse to try and be perceived to fail than to not try at all.

Photo credit: By Danny Johnston/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  November 30, 2009; 4:20 PM ET
Categories:  Stimulus  
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Comments

here's an alternate explanation: the median intelligence of the members of congress is lower than the median intelligence of american adults in general.

so we've got a lot of not very bright people with big egos who don't know much beyond few-sentence sound bites, and as a result, they get scared of anything that requires cognition beyond a few-sentence sound bite.

Posted by: howard16 | November 30, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

They sold the last stimulus on the assertion that it would lower unemployment below 8 percent by now. Proposing another stimulus would just focus public attention on the failure of the first one to live up to its promises.

Posted by: tomtildrum | November 30, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

"What confuses me is why politicians aren't as afraid of unpopular conditions as unpopular votes."

Two words: attack ads.

If they don't vote, they aren't responsible (they think).

This explains the blue dog dems (so-called moderates) also. They want to claim that didn't really mean it, and they tried to dilute it (to ineffectiveness).

Two other words: No Backbone.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | November 30, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

What JimPortlandOR said. It's a lot easier to claim you "saw it coming" and "were totally against [bad thing]" when you try really hard to stay on both sides of every position.

Posted by: NS12345 | November 30, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

I never quote Thomas Friedman, but I will on this. Friedman wrote back in January that the biggest decision Obama would make this year would be the size of the stimulus. He's more right than I wish he were.

Christina Romer, an actual economist, told these politicians you need a $1.2T stimulus package to fill the hole, and that you needed the majority of it to be this year. For political reasons(probably practical given the Senate exists) they decided not only to reduce that by 1/3, but to also spread it out over a longer period. So now we have brought a knife to a gunfight, and deflation is going to blow our brains out.

We're f#cked.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | November 30, 2009 5:11 PM | Report abuse


Obama is missing a golden opportunity to address jobs and economic growth - putting in policies that are sound over the long term as opposed to short term fixes.

In any event, the liberals shouldn't fear too much... the jobs will eventually return given an economic recovery from this 2-year recession... we could do much better over the following business cycle than this terrible stimulus bill.

Posted by: RandomWalk1 | November 30, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

tomtildrum, not exactly.

they sold the stimulus on ameliorating the recession. their projection for how bad the recession was going to be was off (as was virtually everyone else's at the time, for reasons that i can't begin to fathom, since many non-professionals, like me, knew that unemployment was certainly going to get worse than they - and everyone else - was projecting); frankly, if they'd been the outlier in projections, they wouldn't have been believed anyhow, so i'm not sure they could have projected much better.

and then, of course, we didn't get the stimulus the obama administration wanted, we got the stimulus that congress was willing to enact, with more tax cuts and less spending, than it should have had.

so yes, they projected a better unemployment number than we have now, and they are paying a price for that, but they projected against a baseline of economic performance that turned out to be optimistic, and we have had the kinds of amelioration that they had projected.

Posted by: howard16 | November 30, 2009 6:54 PM | Report abuse

--"The fact that we avoided an economic collapse [...]"--

Did Gruber tell you it was a "fact", Klein? Or is that just one of those things a valley girl picks up via Twitter?

The economic collapse hasn't been avoided, unsurprisingly, it's only been distorted. There is no free lunch. The government cannot create wealth, it can only destroy it. Government cannot keep bubbles from bursting by throwing money at them, it can only delay and worsen the inevitable while causing more damage via the lost productivity it steals to finance its schemes. Economic collapse is not avoided by redistributing stolen wealth to teachers and nurses, it's just deepened and prolonged because the real producers in the economy have less money with which to innovate and produce.

The pigeons have yet to come home to roost, Klein. The other shoe has yet to drop. And drop it must. Gravity is not suspended with wishful thinking, no matter what you think the facts are.

Posted by: msoja | November 30, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Reasons offered by commentators - howard16, tomtildrum, JimPortlandOR and zeppelin003; all are true and applicable.

As far as Romer's 1.2T Stimulus goes: it was Obama and Rahm who reduced the final price tag. So I would say President is personally responsible for that error. Further there were two things which we missed at that time too:
- people tried to warn Administration lot about their faulty and over rosy assumptions / projections there (and those were derided by the Administration)
- as Matt Yeglesias pointed and Krugman admitted today in his column, German like policy to give benefit who share the work rather than layoffs; that opportunity was missed too then and it is too late today to adopt such a measure. I can suspect, it must be Geithnier and Summers who would have opposed such a policy given their track record of favoring Wall Street at the cost of Labor.

Finally, even today why Obama Administration and Congress are so lack luster in addressing 'unemployment issue' - they fail to read the political reality and will head towards a defeat in 2010 election. In other words, Dems here are simply politically 'tone deaf'.

Posted by: umesh409 | November 30, 2009 9:07 PM | Report abuse

umesh409 - Why do you expect politicians to be or do any better? How many times over how many years will you endure the disappointment before you quit going to that dark, poisonous well? Government is NOT the answer. How thick do you have to be to continue to believe otherwise?

Posted by: msoja | November 30, 2009 9:25 PM | Report abuse

msoja - I thought the whole point of people's democracy is keep on pressurizing our elected Government to work for us. As water goes from top to down, elected representatives are naturally inclined 'not to work' for us. It is we who constantly have to push this rock uphill...

And as far expecting government to help us - I do not share that divinity is in finding solutions apart from government. I view that as Regan was correct then to reduce Fed's involvement in American Economy, as FDR was right then to add many government backed entitlement expansion and as Bush/Obama were right to introduce TARP in 2008; I expect now is the time for Fed to be involved in a responsible way.

As spectacular failures of Capitalism have shown - there is a need for Gov. to get involved. Sure, there will be time to restrict that involvement in decades to come if Fed exceeds; but that is not now.

Disappointments - that is not new. We are screwed either ways.

Posted by: umesh409 | November 30, 2009 10:45 PM | Report abuse

--"I thought the whole point of people's democracy is keep on pressurizing our elected Government to work for us."--

No, that's the way to wreck a country, and it's that idea that is wrecking this country. The idea that the United States was founded on was that YOU got to work for YOURSELF and the government stayed out of the way except to make sure that no one violated your rights as you pursued your own happiness.

What you describe can be likened to a tyranny of like-minded idiots, or petty despots, if you will.

--"As spectacular failures of Capitalism have shown"--

Enh. I've said before: Capitalism is only as successful as its participants are honest, while Socialism is corrupt from beginning to end irrespective of the moral nature of its leaders. In that sense, Capitalism doesn't fail. People are dishonest, or stupid, but that's no reflection on the system. Freedom demands that people be allowed to be stupid or dishonest. Socialism won't force them otherwise, in fact, it encourages all sorts of dishonest (political) behavior. Think about it.

Posted by: msoja | November 30, 2009 11:56 PM | Report abuse

It's politicians' math. If 9% of the people are unemployed, then 91% are working. If a vote might irritate one segment or the other, he's a lot more concerned about the 91 than about the 9.

The root problem is, a large chunk of the 91 don't really care about the 9. They have theirs.

Posted by: dlk117561 | December 1, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I think the answer has to do with the proof is in the pudding. Combine this with you can't very well advocate for a policy while keeping it secret and you get politicians who are afraid to make their preferences known or push too hard for what they want out of fear that the pudding they get won't be the pudding they asked for. In the mean time, they hand a stick to political opponents who beat them over the head for ideas that stand too far outside conventional wisdom.

Posted by: bcbulger | December 1, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

There's a simple answer to this question. In order to get credit or blame for a vote, all you have to do is cast it. On the other hand, in order to bring about better macro-economic conditions through your political choices you need to vote for a policy along with a lot of other people and then the policy has to work.

But then again, what if the policy which improves the unemployment numbers is itself unpopular? Hope that other people will vote for it, and that it passes without your vote. So worrying about high unemployment has no necessary connection at all with voting for unemployment-improving policies.

This is like asking why workers often keep their heads down in order to hold onto their job rather than joining the union. "Things would be so much better if they all joined!" we might say. I think we automatically understand that kind of problem but with politicians we assume that they must be stupid or evil.

Posted by: jjohn2 | December 1, 2009 10:19 PM | Report abuse

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