I have to fight the feeling that it's too late to do much more about the unemployment problem. It's not. Unemployment is still several percentage points above the full employment level and falling slowly -- far too slow to provide any comfort -- and there is every reason to believe that it could be years yet before we reach acceptable employment levels (barring further troubles along the way). We know that unemployment is costly, and that the longer the problem persists the more permanent and damaging it becomes. We also know that we could help to overcome this problem by using idle labor and idle resources to build needed infrastructure. The price of doing so -- the cost of labor, materials, and interest on the borrowing needed to build infrastructure -- is as low as it is likely to get. The cost is low, the need is great, yet we do nothing. Why?
Politics. That's what makes me want to throw up my hands and give up. As I've noted in the past, it seems useless to even try since politicians aren't going to act. Political gridlock will not allow it. But I've also been careful to say that "I'll still complain -- there's no reason to let policymakers off the hook."
And there's good reason for that. One of the frustrating things about the Obama administration is its inability to put Republicans on the spot -- to back them into a corner with an unpopular vote on proposed legislation. Republicans do this all the time. They give legislation a name like "The Revitalization of the American Dream Act," or something better -- they are much better at this than me -- throw in something Democrats can't stomach so they vote against it, and then never let voters forget the vote against America.
Democrats did very little of this when they controlled the agenda in Congress, and the opportunity to bring legislation to an actual vote is now diminished. But that shouldn't stop the Democrats from using policy proposals to point out the stark difference between the parties on issues such as job creation.
Importantly, doing so may be provide benefits beyond political gains. Paul Krugman believes there's still hope for additional policy measures devoted to job creation if Democrats play their policy cards correctly:
...It’s not at all clear what the political landscape will look like after the election. But there do seem to be three main possibilities: President Obama is reelected and Democrats also regain control of Congress; Mitt Romney wins the presidential election and Republicans add a Senate majority to their control of the House; the president is reelected but faces at least one hostile house of Congress. What can be done in each of these cases?
The first case—Obama triumphant—obviously makes it easiest to imagine America doing what it takes to restore full employment. In effect, the Obama administration would get an opportunity at a do-over, taking the strong steps it failed to take in 2009. Since Obama is unlikely to have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, taking these strong steps would require making use of reconciliation, the procedure that the Democrats used to pass health care reform and that Bush used to pass both of his tax cuts. So be it. If nervous advisers warn about the political fallout, Obama should remember the hard-learned lesson of his first term: the best economic strategy from a political point of view is the one that delivers tangible progress.
A Romney victory would naturally create a very different situation; if Romney adhered to Republican orthodoxy, he would of course reject any government action... It’s not clear, however, whether Romney believes any of the things he is currently saying. His two chief economic advisers, Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw and Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, are committed Republicans but also quite Keynesian..., we can at least hope that Romney’s inner circle holds views that are much more realistic than anything the candidate says in his speeches, and that once in office he would rip off his mask, revealing his true pragmatic, Keynesian nature.
Of course, a great nation should not have to depend on the hope that a politician is in fact a complete fraud who doesn’t believe any of the things he claims to believe. And such a hope is certainly not a reason to vote for that politician. Still, making the case for job creation may not be a wasted effort, even if Republicans take it all this November.
Finally, what about the fairly likely case in which Obama is returned to office but a Democratic Congress is not? What should Obama do, and what are the prospects for action? My answer is that the president, other Democrats, and every Keynesian-minded economist with a public profile should make the case for job creation forcefully and often, and keep pressure on those in Congress who are blocking job-creation efforts.
This is not the way the Obama administration operated for its first two and a half years. ... The result ... was ... that as ... the president bought into deficit obsession and calls for austerity, the whole national discourse shifted away from job creation. ...
In September 2011 the White House finally changed tack, offering a job-creation proposal that fell far short of what was needed, but was nonetheless much bigger than expected. There was no chance that the plan would actually pass the Republican-led House of Representatives, and Noam Scheiber of The New Republic tells us that White House political operatives “began to worry that the size of the package would be a liability and urged the wonks to scale it back.” This time, however, Obama sided with the economists... Public reaction was generally favorable, while Republicans were put on the spot for their obstruction.
And early this year, with the debate having shifted perceptibly toward a renewed focus on jobs, Republicans were on the defensive. As a result, the Obama administration was able to get a significant fraction of what it wanted—an extension of the payroll tax credit, not an ideal stimulus but nonetheless a measure that puts cash in workers’ pockets, and maintenance for a shorter period of extended unemployment benefits—without making any major concessions.
In short, the experience of Obama’s first term suggests that not talking about jobs simply because you don’t think you can pass job-creation legislation doesn’t work even as a political strategy. On the other hand, hammering on the need for job creation can be good politics, and it can put enough pressure on the other side to bring about better policy too.
Or to put it more simply, there is no reason not to tell the truth about this depression.