The Un-SOTU

by Dave Schuler on September 9, 2011

You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ cried Humpty Dumpty. ‘How many days are there in a year?’

‘Three hundred and sixty-five,’ said Alice.

‘And how many birthdays have you?’

‘One.’

‘And if you take one from three hundred and sixty-five, what remains?’

‘Three hundred and sixty-four, of course.’

Humpty Dumpty looked doubtful. ‘I’d rather see that done on paper,’ he said.

Alice couldn’t help smiling as she took out her memorandum-book, and worked the sum for him:
365
1
____

364
___

Humpty Dumpty took the book, and looked at it carefully. ‘That seems to be done right—’ he began.

‘You’re holding it upside down!’ Alice interrupted.

‘To be sure I was!’ Humpty Dumpty said gaily, as she turned it round for him. ‘I thought it looked a little queer. As I was saying, that SEEMS to be done right—though I haven’t time to look it over thoroughly just now—and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents—’

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Somewhat against my better instincts I listened to the president’s speech last night, the prepared text of which can be found here. I thought the tone of it was just fine. I didn’t find it begging or angry as some did. I thought it was hortatory, which was appropriate. I would further point out that anybody who interprets exhortation as anger (or begging for that matter) has a problem. James Fallows notes a relationship to the “call and refrain” mode of some sermons. I think that’s fair comment.

Before I begin any reaction to the substance of the speech can anyone tell me over what period the spending is to take place? I haven’t seen that defined anywhere. I would guess three years. Now let me put my reaction in the form of a word problem.

Question: The economy has a $1.4 trillion output gap. The president has proposed $150 billion per year in additional stimulus spending. Based on that it is reasonable to infer that the president believes

A. The Keynesian multiplier is around 10.

B. Half a loaf is better than none.

C. There’s no chance that the House Republicans will pass this bill in its current form so he may as well rack up some points with his base for proposing the spending he has and give himself a platform to run on in the 2012 elections.

D. Never let a good crisis go to waste.

E. I understood there was to be no math.

F. Other

Note that the proposal makes no sense whatever unless you believe in the effectiveness of Keynesian stimulus or you believe that the proposal is merely a cynical political ploy.

If the president’s economic advisors are telling him that the Keynesian multiplier is around 10, they are blowing smoke up his skirt.

Reactions from the president’s allies are tending towards B, cf. Paul Krugman’s column. I don’t see how Dr. Krugman reconciles “it would probably make a significant dent in unemployment” with his previous complaints about the inadequacy of the 2009 stimulus. Once the afterglow has worn off will it be followed by a walk of shame?

The speech had barely been made before the AP had already fact-checked it and found it wanting. The analogy that I made some time ago is starting to gain traction: he will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

Mike Shedlock is even more critical, cataloguing the speech’s “lies”, e.g.:

Obama: The purpose of the American Jobs Act is simple: to put more people back to work and more money in the pockets of those who are working. It will create more jobs for construction workers, more jobs for teachers, more jobs for veterans, and more jobs for the long-term unemployed. It will provide a tax break for companies who hire new workers, and it will cut payroll taxes in half for every working American and every small business. It will provide a jolt to an economy that has stalled, and give companies confidence that if they invest and hire, there will be customers for their products and services.

Mish: That is lie number 4. The primary purpose of the American Jobs Act is simple: To keep one person (namely President Obama), in his job.

I am more charitable. I don’t think they’re mostly lies but rather wishful thinking and exaggerations, i.e. campaign promises.

I continue to find the White House’s position incoherent. Does the president really think that his proposal is large enough? That it’s the most he can get with the Congress he has? If he can’t even get what he has proposed, which I think is more than likely, shouldn’t he have proposed even more? He’ll gain more traction with his base by failing to get a $1 trillion stimulus package than he will by failing to get a $450 billion dollar one.

In the end the president’s proposal does not meet the standards I outlined earlier for an acceptable package. It is insufficiently focused. The president is punting on fiscal problems presented by a solution that even if you accept the Keynesian analysis is too small to accomplish objectives other than political ones.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

PD Shaw September 9, 2011 at 8:16 am

On the timing of the spending, this August 31 announcement suggests 18 months for infrastructure spending, but its ambiguous on many points:

“At the President’s direction, the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior and Transportation will each select up to three high priority infrastructure projects that will create a significant number of jobs, have already identified necessary funding, and where the significant steps remaining before construction – including permit decisions, reviews, and consultations – are within the control and jurisdiction of the federal government and can be completed within 18 months.”

Drew September 9, 2011 at 8:50 am

Your comments are more sober and less waggish, but really. Let’s skip all the ridiculous strawmen and false alternatives. They’ve been well covered.

I found myself feeling like I was watching some late night infommercial.

“Pass this bill and the shamwow will clean up the Pennsylvania floods in two seconds”

But wait! There’s more!

“Pass this bill and get a Ginzu knife that cuts through steel like butter!”

And then flowers will bloom and angels will sing……….

This is a serious problem being, ahem, “dealt with” by an un-serious man.

Icepick September 9, 2011 at 11:50 am

Speaking of pie in the sky, you all seem to have missed the best part of the speech last night. Obama was droning on about the need for more infrastructure when he said the following:

Pass this jobs bill, and we can put people to work rebuilding America. Everyone here knows that we have badly decaying roads and bridges all over this country. Our highways are clogged with traffic. Our skies are the most congested in the world. [emphasis added]

My sister and I said in unison, “He’s going to build more sky?”

Arguably a funnier part of the speech was the constant refrain to “pass this bill now!” If congress would do so, small businesses would start hiring tomorrow, yada yada yada.

The only problem is that there isn’t any bill to pass. The White House staff hasn’t written the damned thing, they only wrote a broad outline of what they want. So he is telling Congress to pass a bill that hasn’t been written yet (and we thought Pelosi was nuts for saying we had to pass the ACA before we would know what was in it – sorry Nancy!), and that some future Congress that hasn’t been elected yet will pay for the bill in some manner that someone else will think about latter.

And most of the bill is stuff we’re already doing, and almost everything has already been tried!

Even excluding all the BS about not bowing down to special interests, this is the most cynical, and cynically stupid, speech I have ever heard.

PD Shaw September 9, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Icepick, that was the area of the speech where Obama said Lincoln founded the Republican Party and the government built the transcontinental railroad. You’re only supposed to read Michelle Bachmann’s speeches that closely, cause she’s got crazy eyes.

jan September 9, 2011 at 12:38 pm

I came away from Obama’s speech unenthused, disappointed, surprised at the grinning “Great Speech” comments he received threading his way through the crowd afterwards, and overall underwhelmed by the entire event. But, then I had a jaded perspective of Obama’s powers of persuasion and general abilities to come up with a real plan going into this. However, reading the comments of others it appears he didn’t hit it out of the ball park for them either.

BTW, Drew, I really laughed at your humorous infomercial reference. It really did sound like one of those get-two-items-for-the-price-of-one ads!

Icepick September 9, 2011 at 2:47 pm

You’re only supposed to read Michelle Bachmann’s speeches that closely, cause she’s got crazy eyes.

As opposed to Obama’s eyes? He looked like he wanted to eat the children of his enemies last night.

Actually, the fun part was seeing how people looked. Geithner looked drawn and miserable. Hillary looked very haggard, and I swear I saw a look in her eyes that said, “I lost to this guy?” Charlie Rangel looked like he had been dug out of some Egyptian tomb and put in a suit. Boehner looked like a darker, more animated version of the same, sans the cool hair. Michele looked anything other than thrilled to be there, and I can’t believe she was wearing purple. Really? Why not the Marie Antoinette wig while you’re at it? Mitch McConnell looked exactly like you would expect a Republican Majority leader of the Senate named Mitch McConnell to look – which is to say like a constipated turtle. Veep Biden was the only guy that looked like he was having a good time, which is an indication of exactly how stupid he is.

All in all, it was as miserable looking a bunch of people as I’ve seen in some time. Networking events for us unemployed folks are generally cheerier in atmosphere, and not just ’cause we’re forcing it.

Icepick September 9, 2011 at 3:06 pm

And PD, not only did I not read the speech carefully, I only listened to it casually. (I found the quote above by finding the text online with Google, and then searching for “skies”. No sweat!) When the President goes before Congress and tells us that we need to stop supporting special interest tax breaks, you know there isn’t anything serious about the speech itself from an intellectual standpoint.

PD Shaw September 9, 2011 at 3:42 pm

I listened casually while clearing the table and checking homework, so I mainly listened to trigger words like “transconinental railroad.” Fallows’ piece seems anachronistic, judging the speech as a whole, shared experience.

One bit that doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention was Obama looking earnestly into the camera calling for painful Medicare reform in order to save the system. Did that not get coverage because its not about “jobs”? Not credible? Not what people want to hear?

PD Shaw September 9, 2011 at 3:54 pm

On the issue of timing of the stimulus, one of the benefits of cutting payroll taxes is that you have an easy way to put the money into the economy almost instantaneously. You just stop taking it off the paychecks on the day the law passes. This doesn’t appear to be the plan. For someone like me, self-employed/employer, that means the benefit of the proposed cuts if they passed into law next week, wouldn’t hit me until seven months from now, when the first quarterly estimated payment is due.

On a side note, I wonder if in an era of slow growth, we are witnessing the deligitimization of the payroll tax as the means of funding SS/Med.

TastyBits September 9, 2011 at 3:58 pm


The Bellman himself they all praised to the skies–
Such a carriage, such ease and such grace!
Such solemnity, too! One could see he was wise,
The moment one looked in his face!

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”

PD Shaw September 9, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Awesome Carolling this week at the Glittering Eye.

Icepick September 9, 2011 at 4:32 pm

One bit that doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention was Obama looking earnestly into the camera calling for painful Medicare reform in order to save the system. Did that not get coverage because its not about “jobs”? Not credible? Not what people want to hear?

You mean he didn’t already fix Medicare with the ACA? Forsooth!

….

And yes, the payroll tax is now completely useless for funding Medicare and SS. We know that because they can’t even cover current expenses anymore. Last night just compounded that: POTUS made a concrete proposal to cut funding for Medicare and SS in half, with a vague promise of future corrections.

steve September 9, 2011 at 9:49 pm

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