In other words, there’s not much Ben Bernanke can do for the economy. He can and should cut interest rates even more — but nobody expects this to do more than provide a slight economic boost.
On the other hand, there’s a lot the federal government can do for the economy. It can provide extended benefits to the unemployed, which will both help distressed families cope and put money in the hands of people likely to spend it. It can provide emergency aid to state and local governments, so that they aren’t forced into steep spending cuts that both degrade public services and destroy jobs. It can buy up mortgages (but not at face value, as John McCain has proposed) and restructure the terms to help families stay in their homes.
And this is also a good time to engage in some serious infrastructure spending, which the country badly needs in any case. The usual argument against public works as economic stimulus is that they take too long: by the time you get around to repairing that bridge and upgrading that rail line, the slump is over and the stimulus isn’t needed. Well, that argument has no force now, since the chances that this slump will be over anytime soon are virtually nil. So let’s get those projects rolling.
Will the next administration do what’s needed to deal with the economic slump? Not if Mr. McCain pulls off an upset. What we need right now is more government spending — but when Mr. McCain was asked in one of the debates how he would deal with the economic crisis, he answered: “Well, the first thing we have to do is get spending under control.”
If Barack Obama becomes president, he won’t have the same knee-jerk opposition to spending. But he will face a chorus of inside-the-Beltway types telling him that he has to be responsible, that the big deficits the government will run next year if it does the right thing are unacceptable.
He should ignore that chorus. The responsible thing, right now, is to give the economy the help it needs. Now is not the time to worry about the deficit.
A Good Time for Deficit Spending
In the coming weeks and months you're going to hear free market ideologues tell us why, in the midst of our current free market-induced crisis, we can't afford to spend money on health care, alternative energy, education, etc. But as Nobel laureate Paul Krugman writes in today's New York Times ("Let's Get Fiscal"), we can't afford not to.