The great American novelist Mark Twain observed “history does not repeat itself but it rhymes.” Today the rhyme is with the 1930s, and if you don’t hear it read FDR’s great Madison Square Garden speech of October 1936:
“For twelve years this nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing government. The nation looked to government but the government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years with the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that government is best which is most indifferent.”
Despite this clarity, the Obama administration insists on hearing a rhyme with the 1990s. That tone deafness has its roots in political choices made at the administration’s outset and explains why the administration has stumbled so badly in its first years. If continued, the economic and social consequences will be grave.
In 2008 President Obama captured the nation with a message of change, yet in office he has chosen to deliver change of style rather than change of substance. At the headline level this choice was reflected in his call for bi-partisanship that looked to split the difference with Republicans. In economic policy, it was reflected in the wholesale reappointment of the Clinton administration team led by Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, a case of continuity not change.
Now, the administration is sinking under failure of its economic policy. That failure is due to its attempt to revive a 1990s paradigm that never worked as advertised and can only deliver stagnation. Painful though it is for Democrats to acknowledge, the reality is the economic policies of President Clinton were largely the same as those of President Bush. On this the record is clear for those willing to see. The Clinton administration pushed financial deregulation; twice reappointed Alan Greenspan; promoted corporate globalization through NAFTA and China PNTR; initiated the strong dollar policy; spoke of the “end of the era of big government”; contemplated privatization of Social Security; and struck down a core element of the New Deal by ending the right to welfare.
The main difference between the Clinton and Bush administrations was the former’s willingness to offer some helping-hand policies to cushion the harsh effects of the invisible hand. Differences in outcomes were not policy driven but reflect the fact the Clinton administration enjoyed the good fortune of the Internet investment bubble. It also benefitted from the beginning of the housing bubble when American families had plenty of untapped home equity and credit.
President Obama’s fateful decision to go with Clintonomics meant the recession was interpreted as an extremely deep downturn rather than a crisis signaling the bankruptcy of the neoliberal paradigm that has ruled both Republicans and Democrats for thirty years. That implied the recession could be fully addressed with stimulus, which was the same response as the Bush administration to the recession of 2001.
The current recession is the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, inviting comparisons with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR had the advantage of taking office three years into the Depression when the unemployment rate was near 25 percent. The verdict was in: the system needed change. President Obama took office as the crisis was deepening. Those who had designed the system could still argue it could be revived and as establishment insiders they had the upper hand. But that argument is done and today the prospect is of long stagnation.
The New Deal was a break with both the politics and economic policies of the past. Its economic policy innovations like Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Wagner Act granting the right to organize, are still celebrated. However, it was FDR’s new politics of solidarity and compassion that created the necessary political space: solidarity that recognized the country was in the Depression together and compassion that recognized many were suffering through no fault of their own. That is the political rhyme President Obama must hear, while the New Deal is the policy rhyme.
The President’s failure to deliver on the country’s desire for change of substance has left a vacuum that is being filled by dangerous unstable forces. This is the tale of the Tea Party, which is a tale that has resonance for Europe. The economic risk, already more advanced in Europe, is a doubling-down of disastrously failed hardcore neoliberal economic policies. The political risk is a rise of intolerance and xenophobia.
These are not normal times. If the administration persists with its deafness to history it will surely hit the rocks and an historical opportunity for progressive change will be squandered. Worse yet, its deafness will leave the field open to the extreme right whose “blame-the-victim” social message and “liquidationist-austerity” economic policies clearly confirm today’s rhyme is with the history of the 1930s.
Thomas Palley is an Associate in the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation.
This essay originally ran on the FT’s economist forum blog.