Friday, February 6, 2009

Stimulating discussions in the Times

Paul Krugman's column today in the New York Times calls on the President to turn up the heat on Republicans and press forward unapolagetically for the Democrats' stimulus plan.
So what should Mr. Obama do? Count me among those who think that the president made a big mistake in his initial approach, that his attempts to transcend partisanship ended up empowering politicians who take their marching orders from Rush Limbaugh. What matters now, however, is what he does next.

It’s time for Mr. Obama to go on the offensive. Above all, he must not shy away from pointing out that those who stand in the way of his plan, in the name of a discredited economic philosophy, are putting the nation’s future at risk. The American economy is on the edge of catastrophe, and much of the Republican Party is trying to push it over that edge.
An analysis story in the Times, however, cautions that trillions of dollars of infrastructure investments in Japan did little to improve the economy.
Japan’s rural areas have been paved over and filled in with roads, dams and other big infrastructure projects, the legacy of trillions of dollars spent to lift the economy from a severe downturn caused by the bursting of a real estate bubble in the late 1980s. During those nearly two decades, Japan accumulated the largest public debt in the developed world — totaling 180 percent of its $5.5 trillion economy — while failing to generate a convincing recovery.
One side says that Japan should have spent more, spent it faster, and spent it more wisely.
One lesson Mr. Geithner has said he took away from that experience is that spending must come in quick, massive doses, and be continued until recovery takes firm root.

Moreover, it matters what gets built: Japan spent too much on increasingly wasteful roads and bridges, and not enough in areas like education and social services, which studies show deliver more bang for the buck than infrastructure spending.
Krugman's column does mention Japan as a cautionary tale, but doesn't mention the failure of the stimulus plan there to achieve results.
And deflationary traps can go on for a long time. Japan experienced a "lost decade" of deflation and stagnation in the 1990s — and the only thing that let Japan escape from its trap was a global boom that boosted the nation’s exports. Who will rescue America from a similar trap now that the whole world is slumping at the same time?
He is advocating for a bigger stimulus.

The other side, however, claims that fundamental reforms and shifts are key to a recovery.
In the end, say economists, it was not public works but an expensive cleanup of the debt-ridden banking system, combined with growing exports to China and the United States, that brought a close to Japan’s Lost Decade. This has led many to conclude that spending did little more than sink Japan deeply into debt, leaving an enormous tax burden for future generations.
Hats off to the Times for a great analysis.