10.05.2009 Policy Points

Economic Policy in Action

The current issue of The New Yorker offers up an 11,000-word profile of  Lawrence Summers, the director of the National Economic Council for the Obama administration.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the article authored by journalist Ryan Lizza is the discussion of how the size of the administration’s recovery package was determined:

On Tuesday, December 16, 2008, as five inches of snow fell on Chicago, Obama’s top advisers gathered in his transition headquarters to discuss the memo. Obama sat on one side of a large square table, and crowded around the three others were members of his incoming team: Biden; Summers; Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff; David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser; Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary; Christina Romer, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers; Peter Orszag, the budget director; Jared Bernstein, Biden’s top economic adviser; and several more. Others, like Lee Sachs, a former Bear Stearns executive and Clinton Treasury official, who was an expert on the financial crisis and who later joined Geithner at Treasury, were brought in via teleconference. Summers led the meeting like an orchestra conductor, directing the other economic advisers, each of whom made a presentation.

The most important question facing Obama that day was how large the stimulus should be. Since the election, as the economy continued to worsen, the consensus among economists kept rising. A hundred-billion-dollar stimulus had seemed prudent earlier in the year. Congress now appeared receptive to something on the order of five hundred billion. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate, was calling for a trillion. Romer had run simulations of the effects of stimulus packages of varying sizes: six hundred billion dollars, eight hundred billion dollars, and $1.2 trillion. The best estimate for the output gap was some two trillion dollars over 2009 and 2010. Because of the multiplier effect, filling that gap didn’t require two trillion dollars of government spending, but Romer’s analysis, deeply informed by her work on the Depression, suggested that the package should probably be more than $1.2 trillion. The memo to Obama, however, detailed only two packages: a five-hundred-and-fifty-billion-dollar stimulus and an eight-hundred-and-ninety-billion-dollar stimulus. Summers did not include Romer’s $1.2-trillion projection. The memo argued that the stimulus should not be used to fill the entire output gap; rather, it was “an insurance package against catastrophic failure.” At the meeting, according to one participant, “there was no serious discussion to going above a trillion dollars.”

There were sound arguments why the $1.2-trillion figure was too high. First, Emanuel and the legislative-affairs team thought that it would be impossible to move legislation of that size, and dismissed the idea out of hand. Congress was “a big constraint,” Axelrod said. “If we asked for $1.2 trillion, it probably would have created such a case of sticker shock that the system would have locked up there.” He pointed east, toward Capitol Hill. “And the world was watching us, the market was watching us. If we failed to produce a stimulus bill, that in and of itself could have had deleterious effects.”

There was also a mechanical argument against a stimulus of that size. Peter Orszag, who was celebrating his fortieth birthday that day, said that, while the argument for a bigger stimulus was sound theoretically, there were limits to how much money the government could practically spend in the near future.

Summers brought a third argument to the debate, one that echoed his advice to Bill Clinton sixteen years earlier, when his Administration was facing persistent budget deficits that Summers believed were suppressing economic growth. He, like Romer, was guided by an understanding that in financial crises the risk of doing too little is greater than doing too much. He believed that filling the output gap through deficit spending was important, but that a package that was too large could potentially shift fears from the current crisis to the long-term budget deficit, which would have an unwelcome effect on the bond market. In the end, Summers made the case for the eight-hundred-and-ninety-billion-dollar option.

When the meeting broke up, after four hours of discussion, interrupted only briefly when the President brought out a cake and led the group in singing “Happy Birthday” to Orszag, there was still indecision about how big a stimulus Obama would recommend to Congress. Summers, Romer, Geithner, Orszag, Emanuel, and Jason Furman huddled in the corner to lock down the number. Emanuel made the final call: six hundred and seventy-five to seven hundred and seventy-five billion dollars, with the understanding that, as the bill made its way through Congress, it was more likely to grow than to shrink. The final legislation was for seven hundred and eighty-seven billion dollars.

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