The liberal backlash against President Barack Obama has begun with many prominent left-leaning economists in the US attacking the administration’s plans to bail out the banks.
Paul Krugman describes the toxic asset purchase plan as “cash for trash”. Jeffrey Sachs calls it “a thinly veiled attempt to transfer hundreds of billions of US taxpayer funds to the commercial banks”. Robert Reich depicts Tim Geithner, Treasury secretary, as a prisoner of Wall Street while Joe Stiglitz says the plan “amounts to robbery of the American people”.
By Edward Luce
On the blogosphere and beyond, Democratic economists accuse Mr Obama – along with Mr Geithner, and Lawrence Summers, the president’s senior economic adviser – of taking dictation from the same financiers who have brought the economy to the brink of depression.
Mr Reich, who was Bill Clinton’s Labour secretary in the 1990s before resigning over the former president’s reluctance to pursue a strong public investment agenda, says that he and his colleagues fear a replay of the Clinton years under Mr Obama.
Mr Reich now talks of the “Paulson-Geithner approach” to demonstrate what he sees as the continuity between Hank Paulson, George W. Bush’s last Treasury secretary, and the current administration. Mr Reich says bank nationalisation is the only answer to today’s crisis.
“Bill Clinton chose to pursue a set of policies that Wall Street agreed with but at the expense of his long-term agenda of boosting public investment,” says Mr Reich. “Bill Clinton’s Wall Street agenda in the end brought America and the world crashing down with it. I hope we are not seeing history repeat itself with Mr Obama.”
Not every Democrat agrees. Brad DeLong, a former Clinton official, says that every banking crisis – barring the Great Depression – has been resolved by government recapitalisation of the banking sector, as Mr Obama is likely to attempt in the near future.
Nor, says Mr DeLong, is it fair to paint Mr Geithner as a creature of Wall Street.
“Hank Paulson is a man who grew up in American finance and cannot imagine a world in which America does well and its financial sector does badly,” he says.
“Tim Geithner, by contrast, is a bureaucrat and a policymaker. He has never pulled down a multibillion-dollar bonus. They are not the same type of people.”
But in reality the division is as much political as economic. Most of Mr Obama’s liberal critics argue he should have gone to Congress already and asked for a lot of money for bank recapitalisation. His defenders say that would be political suicide until the populist mood on Capitol Hill has died down.
“We have to ask ourselves: Do we want to revive our economy, or do we want to punish the bankers?” says Mr DeLong. “I don’t agree that we can do both.”