Obama’s Economic Soul?

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jason furman twn.jpg
(photo credit: Patrick Andrade/New York Times)
Jason Furman, Director of the Brookings Institution Hamilton Project, has just announced that he is joining University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee as part of Barack Obama’s (paid) economic policy team. This is really interesting news given the tug and pull over economic policy that has taken place already inside the Obama camp.
There are exceptions in their broad policy profiles and work, but essentially, both Goolsbee and Jason Furman are serious economists who generally subscribe to a neoliberal economic policy framework. They would be called “free traders” for the most part — and because no free trade is really a free trade deal given the thousands of pages and negotiated side arrangements that comprise an FTA, it’s fairly easy for each to say that they are on the side of working families and want to prevent the worst impacts from hitting the American middle class while in theory, they would prefer to see a genuine, frictionless free trade system in which efficiencies are created throughout the economic ecosystem.
Furman (a friendly acquaintance of mine and close associate of one of my New America Foundation colleagues) is also well known for his budget-hawkery. He has been part of the Democratic Party economic class that has successfully stolen from the Republicans the ethic of fiscal conservatism and advocates a Social Security entitlement reform process that begins to wrestle with America’s long term entitlement obligations.
To some degree, Furman manifests the interests and perspective of perhaps the leading neoliberal force in politics today, Robert Rubin. Furman could make a good case that his views may differ here and there, but my sense is that he’s an essential spear-carrier of Rubinomics.
Given the rhetoric of Obama on redoing trade deals, of giving China a tough time on trade, and focusing on the real needs of working class Americans — the choice of Furman surprises me though I certainly don’t oppose it.
But calling a spade a spade, it’s clear that Furman is no Dean Baker or Robert Blecker or Jared Bernstein — all important economists who have been far more right as of late than the Rubin crowd in anticipating the stress points in globalization, the housing bubble, trade, and the like.
Leo Hindery, the CEO who has been advocating a stakeholder vs. ‘winner takes all’ capitalism as well as a national “on-shoring strategy”, is part of Obama’s advisory team — but it may be wise for Obama to explain why those hired for the econ jobs pretty much reflect neoliberal orthodoxy and those ‘only advising’ in political roles are struggling with strategies on how to rebalance the economic results and impacts of globalization. I do a lot of work with Hindery whose earnestness in trying to rejigger the global economy towards fairness and growth is inspiring — and my recommendation to Obamaland is to make sure that Hindery and others working on this front that is more skeptical of classic neoliberalism are elevated as well.
It’s useful to remember however that whereas Robert Reich and Derek Shearer wrote Bill Clinton’s economic plan for the 1992 campaign, it was Rubin and his followers on the neoliberal wing of economics who contained and essentially exiled those with alternative views.
So, congrats to Jason Furman on his new post — but I am scratching my head wondering which direction Obama is really going?

— Steve Clemons

Comments

36 comments on “Obama’s Economic Soul?

  1. David Nassar says:

    Steve: Thank you for raising such delicate questions about the campaign’s choice of Furman. In 2005 Furman wrote “Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story (http://www.americanprogress.org/kf/walmart_progressive.pdf) and spoke out at CAP in favor of Wal-Mart’s low-wage, low-benefit business model because he argued that it reduces prices and creates jobs. So add this specific concern to your broad worries about the relative roles of a Leo Hindery vs. a Jason Furman. Are we to believe that the person advising Sen.Obama on economics is advocating Wal-Mart’s business model? If so, it seems too far-fetched that the candidate would listen. But, as you point out, it does mean it is fair to ask more clearly where they are going and given Wal-Mart’s role as incendiary spark in any economic debate, his appointment may fuel some fire.

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  2. Tahoe Editor says:

    Krugman also gave us “Gas tax hysterics”. Sounds like you’re there:

    Hillary Clinton’s proposed gas tax holiday is not, in my view, a good idea. But the furor over what is, when all is said and done, a small and temporary policy proposal is entirely disproportionate. What’s going on?
    Part of it, clearly, is the fact that many people in the media really, really want Obama to win and Clinton to lose and have seized on the gas tax as their latest proof that she is ee-ee-vil.

    There has been no Economics Revolution since Barry was pandering in the Illinois Senate. Politicians oppose all the economists in the world because they see data that shows some short-term relief. The gas-tax dustup is a played-out political drama. Either support short-term relief or attack your opponent as a gimmick solution who won’t bring real Changeâ„¢. Obama flip-flopped to try on different roles and test their political viability. He is testing the waters to see how much you believe the oceans are under his control and no one else’s.

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  3. leo says:

    RE:Obama, yeah I guess he did fall for gas tax holidays in Illinois… but he learned (!) and didn’t fall for it again in the Presidential Primaries (as Hillary did) when McCain grabbed for the hot issue.
    Hillary also made a major mistake, IMO, by pretending she was backing a valid policy (rather than one that the entire economic community understood was nonsense).

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  4. leo says:

    Yes, that was plan B for Hillary… oops, it’s bad policy (and I can’t admit that). Well, hmm… what I’ll do is Also tax the oil companies (“that’s a winner”)!
    As Krugman said:
    “The Clinton twist is that she proposes paying for the revenue loss with an excess profits tax on oil companies. In one pocket, out the other. So it’s pointless, not evil.”
    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/29/gas-tax-follies/
    What he’s actually saying is that Hillary’s gas tax cut still wouldn’t change gas prices, neither would the “windfall” profits tax on the oil companies.

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  5. Tahoe Editor says:

    More like Obama voting for gas-tax holidays over and over in the Illinois Senate because he knew they had some effect and some voters would be bought. At least Hillary articulated a policy that would pay for it with a windfall profits tax, unlike McCain. Obama flip-flopped into his new position so he could say “gimmick” 100 times a day, not out of principle.

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  6. leo says:

    Like with the gas tax relief fraud? The entire economic community, and Obama, saying it won’t make a difference vs the economically esteemed McCain (and formerly maybe admirable Carly Fiorina) and his follower Hillary?

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  7. Tahoe Editor says:

    No, I agree with other posters who understand all pols pander & flip-flop. I just think Obama is the King, mostly because he so rarely knows what he’s talking about.
    http://www.thewashingtonnote.com/archives/2008/06/obamas_happy_ca/#comments

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  8. leo says:

    Um, what about pro-NAFTA Hillary in TX and anti-NAFTA Hillary in Ohio?
    Even TE is likely scratching his/her Clintonian head over that one.

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  9. Mr.Murder says:

    PS- Canada’s consulate got the message, anti NAFTA talk was just campaign rhetoric on Obama’s part….

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  10. Mr.Murder says:

    Say one thing do another, George Bush is for free trade, so is Barack Obama, this is why John McCain is just like George Bush….

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  11. Tahoe Editor says:

    Chris “if you don’t cry when Obama speaks you’re not an American” Matthews.

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  12. leo says:

    Yeah, they decided Matthews and Oberman were small fry vis TE.

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  13. Tahoe Editor says:

    The Language Police are knocking at the door …

    Reply

  14. leo says:

    To the victors go the spoils, the Clinton’s certainly understand this.
    BTW, isn’t TE wandering into banned-troll territory with his/her’s latest Obama crack?

    Reply

  15. Tahoe Editor says:

    When in doubt, crib Clinton.

    Reply

  16. WigWag says:

    I would simply point out that when Bob Rubin was at Treasury, the United States enjoyed tremendous economic growth. Unemployment fell dramatically, interest rates came down significantly and working people enjoyed better financial security than they had in a generation. Middle class and working class Americans enjoyed growth in real income that they hadn’t seen in years and haven’t seen since. Rubin handled the Asian collapse, the Latin American collapse and the Russian collapse seamlessly. I know that Rubin isn’t entitled to all the credit. Bill Clinton gets some; Tony Blair gets some, Alan Greenspan gets some and even Gordon Brown (then Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK)get some.
    Why does Obama want to try and bring in people who are Bob Rubin disciples. It’s simple. His policies worked.

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  17. Tahoe Editor says:

    “So, congrats to Jason Furman on his new post — but I am scratching my head wondering which direction Obama is really going?”

    Obama is scratching his head, wondering which way he is going as well.
    And with that I forfeit “head scratching” before someone nails me for calling BO a monkey.

    Reply

  18. Rajaru says:

    POA
    Touche’

    Reply

  19. pauline says:

    Last weekend I was in my local campustown and saw a teen or early twenty-something somebody wearing a t-shirt with an angry-looking pillsbury doughboy with one dough-hand clenched with the phrase “white flour” written below.
    It’s proximity to racism I suppose made it so.

    Reply

  20. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “PissedOffAmerican – I guess we can say you chose your moniker appropriately!”
    Yeah, I like to call a spade a spade.

    Reply

  21. jason says:

    Caroll – you’re joking, right?

    Reply

  22. Carroll says:

    Posted by Rajaru Jun 09, 2:42PM
    I think you are over reacting somewhat.
    People use “sayings” all the time without using them in racist ways.
    You need to view it in the context of what is actually being talked about.
    And POA..I am a southerner and I thought it was “catch a monkey by the toe”? Gads, now if someone tells me monkey is a code word for blacks I really will give up.

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  23. lurker says:

    Steve: LOL. This is such a tantalizingly wonderful and seductive post. Please don’t ever let me get on your bad side. I share your enthusiasm for Leo Hindery who was so real, candid, and refreshing in talking about the economy when you lined up the economic advisors to Edwards, Clinton, Obama, McCain and I think Romney. Hindery got lots of press time with that meeting, and Goolsbee too was interesting in that but clearly, Hindery had more answers that seemed to work in the real world rather than the theoretical one that the University of Chicago clan are usually thinking about.
    Bravo Steve. I think you are the first to think through what this appointment of Dr. Furman means. No doubt, you are helping to define the game again, as usual.

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  24. pauline says:

    Steve wrote:
    “they would be called “free traders” for the most part…”
    I’m beginning to think “fair traders” are better for all in the world’s marketplace than this over-used, under-defined “free trader” BS phrase.
    Can a country’s government that purposely keeps their ag workers income at the bottom end be called “free traders” and if so, so what?!

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  25. Rajaru says:

    PissedOffAmerican – I guess we can say you chose your moniker appropriately!
    I didn’t say Steve was making a racist comment. I DID know exactly what he was saying, which is why I wrote this:
    “I point it out here only because I’m seeing this crop up frequently lately, used by people who I’m sure don’t intend to use it that way. Since your post is, among other things, about Barack Obama, a man that in another less enlightened time would be referred to as a “spade”, thought you may want to take that into account.”
    Steve has already responded, and while I disagree with his decision, he has addressed it and I thank him for the response.

    Reply

  26. Rajaru says:

    Jim: “Historically” and “originally” are different words with different meanings (heck, even different spellings, to help you tell which is which).
    In any case, an acquaintance of mine with which I have had this same on-going debate have decided to go with the original “to call a fig a fig” and remove the controversy from the phrase altogether.
    Unfortunately this means we’ll have to find something new to argue about.

    Reply

  27. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Hey, don’t get huffy with me, man. I was just tryin’ to shed some light on it.
    My mother was a southerner, raised in some little podunk town in Tennessee. I grew up saying “eenie meenie miney moe, catch a nigger by the toe”. But it was ingrained, passed on to me by the bigotry of my mother’s upbringing. I never gave it a thought, or saw it as a racial slur. For a child, it was simply the words of a silly rhyme about choosing. As an adolescent, the meaning of the words began to sink in.
    My point is that often we are victims of yesterday, without guilt or malice. Old sayings die hard, and their meanings get lost, misconstrued, or interpreted in an over-sensitive manner. Steve’s intent, I believe, was not to insult along racial lines, so it is YOUR own hyper racial sensitivity that created the insult.
    You know EXACTLY what Steve was saying, and, taken in context, Steve’s “spade” is just a shovel.

    Reply

  28. Steve Clemons says:

    Rajaru and others: Thanks for noting this. First I did not know that “spade” at one point was a racial slur, but the term “calling a spade a spade” has historic roots and usages that greatly predate the racial uses of the word ‘spade.’
    Some of this is here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_call_a_spade_a_spade
    But I was familiar with the term from other Medieval era literature. That doesn’t mean that we can fall into easy grooves. I used to say “off the reservation” until a number of callers of Amy Goodman’s brought me up to speed on the inappropriateness of that term, and I changed course.
    In this case, however, I will maintain my useage as I mean no racial slur whatsoever and my use is clear and not meant to offend. I don’t want to forfeit such terms to the hijacking that others have done of component words.
    best regards,
    steve clemons

    Reply

  29. jim says:

    “…it is nonetheless historically a racial slur.”
    Rajaru – shame on you! Don’t try to call back words once they are writ. It does not speak well of your honesty.

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  30. Rajaru says:

    PissedOffAmerican – I did not say the ORIGIN was an ethnic slur. I simply stated that the term “spade” was an ethnic slur, regardless of origin or any other path by which it came to be associated with “persons of color”, through ignorance or otherwise.
    So thanks for the history lesson, but it is a distinction without a difference in regards to the point I was making.

    Reply

  31. PissedOffAmerican says:
  32. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “to call a spade a spade”
    (Phrase Origins)
    is NOT an ethnic slur.
    It derives from an ancient Greek expression: _ta syka syka, te:n skaphe:n de skaphe:n onomasein_ = “to call a fig a fig, a trough a
    trough”.
    This is first recorded in Aristophanes’ play _The Clouds_(423 B.C.), was used by Menander and Plutarch, and is still current
    in modern Greek. There has been a slight shift in meaning: in ancient times the phrase was often used pejoratively, to denote a rude person who spoke his mind tactlessly; but it now, like the English phrase, has an exclusively positive connotation. It is possible that both the fig and the trough were originally sexual
    symbols.
    In the Renaissance, Erasmus confused Plutarch’s “trough” (_skaphe:_) with the Greek word for “digging tool” (_skapheion_;
    the two words are etymologically connected, a trough being something that is hollowed out) and rendered it in Latin as _ligo_. Thence it was translated into English in 1542 by Nicholas Udall in his translation of Erasmus’s version as “to call a spade […] a spade”.
    (_Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations_ perpetuates Erasmus’ error by mistranslating _skaphe:_ as “spade” three times under Menander.)
    “To call a spade a bloody shovel” is not recorded until 1919. “Spade” in the sense of “Negro” is not recorded until 1928. (It
    comes from the colour of the playing card symbol, via the phrase “black as the ace of spades”.)
    This, of course, does *not* necessarily render the modern use of “to call a spade a spade” “politically correct”. Rosalie Maggio, in
    _The Bias-Free Word-Finder_, writes: “The expression is associated with a racial slur and is to be avoided”, and recommends using “to
    speak plainly” or other alternatives instead. In another entry, she writes: “Although by definition and derivation ‘niggardly’ and
    ‘nigger’ are completely unrelated, ‘niggardly’ is too close for
    comfort to a word with profoundly negative associations. Use
    instead one of the many available alternatives: stingy, miserly,
    parsimonious…” Beard and Cerf, in _The Official Politically
    Correct Handbook_, p. 123, report that an administrator at the
    University of California at Santa Cruz campaigned for the banning
    of such phrases as “a chink in his armor” and “a nip in the air”,
    because “chink” and “nip” are also derogatory terms for “Chinese
    person” and “Japanese person” respectively. In the late 1970s in
    the U.S., a boycott of the (now defunct) Sambo’s restaurant chain
    was organized, even though the name “Sambo’s” was a combination of
    the names of its two founders and did not come from the offensive
    word for dark-skinned person.
    Source: [Mark Israel, ‘Phrase Origins: “to call a spade a spade”‘, The alt.usage.english FAQ file,(line 4562), (29 Sept 1997)]

    Reply

  33. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Hmmmm, speakin’ of Presidential candidates and their economic advisors…..
    http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2008/06/house_committee_report_details_abramoff.php
    House Committee Details Abramoff Connections to Bush White House
    By Kate Klonick – June 9, 2008, 11:47AM
    The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released a “proposed” report this morning finding that Jack Abramoff did indeed have “personal contact with President Bush” and that Abramoff and cohorts were “held in high regard” by White House officials.
    The proposed report also finds that Abramoff and his associates “influenced some White House actions” and gave White House officials “expensive tickets and meals.”
    The report (.pdf), technically a draft of the committee’s findings, will be marked up and voted on by committee members in a meeting on Thursday.
    We’ll be looking through the report and bringing you updates, but in a first read through here are some findings that stuck out.
    Abramoff and team gave gifts to Carlos Bonilla, at the time a Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and now an economic policy advisor for John McCain:
    On October 18, 2001, Kevin Ring sent an unknown number of tickets to an unknown event to Mr. Bonilla by courier. In addition, in response to an offer from Kevin Ring, Mr. Bonilla requested and was provided with two tickets to sit in the Abramoff suite for the November 20, 2001, Washington Wizards game.
    The report confirms much of what was already known about the Abramoff-led effort to oust Department of Interior official Alan Stayman, Abramoff’s nemesis on issues involving his client, the Mariana Islands:
    One action that White House officials took at the request of Mr. Abramoff was to intervene to force the removal of a State Department official, Alan Stayman. In a previous position at the Office of Insular Affairs in the Department of the Interior, Mr. Stayman had advocated positions opposed by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, then a client of Mr. Abramoff. Mr. Stayman was appointed to his position at the Department of State during the Clinton Administration.
    In a recent Committee deposition, Monica Kladakis, then-Deputy Associate Director in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel (OPP), confirmed that OPP became involved in Mr. Stayman’s removal after White House officials were contacted by Mr. Abramoff’s team.

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  34. DrSteveB says:

    his economic “soul”
    “calling a spade a spade”
    Gee Mr. Clemons… race much?
    I am guessing you are trying to be self-ironic/cute, but not sure this is a good idea.
    And per my prior note, you see I agree with your undelying point: Obama is picking from center-right within the Democratic spectrum of economic advisors (Chicago, Brookings/Hamilton) and not from the respectable center-left of say CEPR or EPI.

    Reply

  35. DrSteveB says:

    It has been clear all along that Obama is not much of a liberal/left/progressive/populist within the range of Democratic party domestic economic policy choices/staffing/adivisors. This is in contrast to his foreign policy, policy shop and general orientation which is far more progressive, forward looking and interesting.
    Of course Clinton talked a more progressive/populist line, espcially from Michigan primary onwards. The problem was few believed she would hold to it once elected.
    Meanwhile, Edwards was the truest economic liberal/left/progressive/populist, which is why so many inside the beltway hated him so much.

    Reply

  36. Rajaru says:

    Enjoy your blog and your work and have for some time now. I just feel compelled to point out that while the term “calling a spade a spade” is fairly antiquated and no longer commonly holds this meaning for most who hear or use it, it is nonetheless historically a racial slur.
    I point it out here only because I’m seeing this crop up frequently lately, used by people who I’m sure don’t intend to use it that way. Since your post is, among other things, about Barack Obama, a man that in another less enlightened time would be referred to as a “spade”, thought you may want to take that into account.
    Link for reference:http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=spade

    Reply

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