Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Obama's Economics

Last weekend, my father asked me what economists thought of recent political events.  So, here is a brief economic analysis of the government's economic actions of the last two years:

GM Bailout:  The administration has handled this amazingly well.  The only political interference, a command to keep certain auto dealers, came from Congress.  GM is now in much better shape then it was before.  The costs of reorganization were mainly paid by stockholders, creditors, and the labor union.  Saving the company prevented a lot of short-term economic pain, at a fairly low cost to the taxpayer.  If we let the company go bankrupt, the resulting unemployment benefits would have cost more than the money spent on the bailout.  There may be long-term moral hazard costs, and GM could still fail, but most economists and commentators call this a success.

TARP:  We will not know the full effects of the 'Wall Street Bailout' for years.  In the short term, most people agree that it prevented a financial collapse for a fairly low price tag.  Taxpayers will not spend anything near the $700 billion figure that was thrown about.  That number was like the coverage limit on an insurance policy; the actual cost to taxpayers will be much less.  There is some evidence that money flowed to politically connected banks, but overall it was handled about as well as it could have been handled, given the chaos and uncertainty of the time.  Moral hazard is an even bigger problem here; a pattern of bailouts might make future financial crises more likely if bankers take more risks.  But it is important to remember that the shape of TARP was decided mainly by the Bush administration, and Obama did not change it much, which was probably wise.

Stimulus package:  The general idea of government spending in a recession is a good one.  But the stimulus package that we got was a massive pile of pork and social engineering that did little to help the people hurt by the crisis.  It, like most spending and budget bills, was written and shaped almost entirely by Congress and not the executive branch.

Health Care Reform: There is a lot of uncertainty about this.  People are still analyzing it and making various predictions.  Congress turned it into a big muddled mess, but it could have been a lot worse.  The cost to the taxpayers will probably of the same order of magnitude as Bush's medicare drugs benefit.  On the business side, high-paid workers will not be affected much, and, assuming fines do not change, the main effect on low-end workers will be like raising the minimum wage by $1.  My prediction is that most companies will not offer health insurance, they will pay the fines, and reduce pay by about $1 an hour to compensate.  People making minimum wage will probably be laid off.  That is troublesome, and will increase unemployment, but not by much more than the average minimum wage hike.  Of course, if fines go up, the effects will be much more severe.

My overall evaluation is that the Obama administration is more competent in economic matters than the Bush administration was, and more competent than any other major presidential candidate would have been.  There are a lot of little things, like the people they appoint to various posts, that they have done very well.  I also think that Obama has not done any more damage to liberty than Bush did or that any plausible alternative would have done.  Congress is the main source of the problems and bad policy we observe.

If you have any other questions about similar issues, or anything really, feel free to ask them in the comments.

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