Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Obama and FDR

Some people have compared Barack Obama to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The hope is that Obama, like Roosevelt, will take strong, positive action to correct and recover from the current economic depression. While there are some similarities — both campaigned as "centrists" — the differences outweigh the similarities.

There are substantial differences in the political climate. Roosevelt took office in 1933, more than three years after the trigger of the Great Depression. Obama, on the other hand, will take office only months after the trigger of this depression. Roosevelt thus did not have to take the blame for the half-measures and incompetent management that inevitably follow a true catastrophe. Obama, on the other hand, does not have someone like Hoover to point to and say, "Whatever we do, we know we can't do that." (Bush doesn't count; Bush has done nothing to try to fix the depression, and it's trivially obvious that Obama cannot cause another depression.)

Roosevelt took office near the bottom of the Great Depression; whatever he did, absent gross incompetence, conditions could not seriously worsen. But even if Obama were to act perfectly — at least within the confines of the capitalist system he unreservedly endorses — just the lag between a Keynesian stimulus and its macroeconomic effects will make conditions during the mid-term elections of 2010 worse than they now are. The Republican party will use these worsening conditions to great effect: I predict in 2010 a narrow Republican majority in at least the House, if not the Senate as well.

Roosevelt took office with a vigorous progressive and socialist movement in the US. He was under serious political pressure to move to the left. Obama takes office with a moribund progressive movement; the only external political pressure he has is to move to the right, to rescue the capitalist class at the expense of labor and the middle class. The only populist pressure he faces is to increase his support for religion and conservative Christianity. The mainstream progressives seem terrified of making even the smallest political demand on Obama: Even criticism of his choosing a misogynist, homophobic, neoconservative, religious fanatic is deprecated and dismissed as irrelevant. "Give Obama a chance!" they say, but WTF? He has his chance: He'll be President of the United States for fuck's sake. The mainstream progressives refuse to pressure him; they'll be so fucking surprised when he doesn't deliver on the tiniest bit of their agenda.

Most importantly, though, Obama faces economic circumstances fundamentally different from those Roosevelt faced. Industry in the 1930's was still incredibly labor-intensive, and the labor pool was national, not global. There was enormous room for economic growth, and economic growth then caused a labor shortage. A Keynesian stimulus (especially the enormous stimulus provided by the war of American Imperialism) paid off almost immediately, both for capitalists and for labor.

Modern economic circumstances are very different. Globalization dilutes the local effect of a Keynsian stimulus; as the French discovered in the 1980s, a stimulus at home will be spent abroad.

Furthermore, our current industrial production is extremely thorough and efficient: There is little scope to produce more goods, and there is little scope to produce goods will less labor. The only place the economy is actually expanding is in very highly skilled labor — which leaves little room for short-term benefit for the hundreds of millions of people who do not already have an advanced college degree or specialized training. And even in highly skilled labor we're reaching the point of diminishing economic returns. A Keynesian stimulus is debt, without enormous economic expansion, the debt just moves the problem to tomorrow. Both the dot-com and housing bubbles were debt-driven stimuli, and look where we are now.

Hoping that Obama will follow the mold of FDR, hoping that the capitalist class will have the wisdom and foresight to actually keep the system running requires a degree of blind faith, magical thinking and willful ignorance that would shame a cretinist.


  1. Well put. Totally on the same page.

  2. Your analysis makes a lot of sense, unfortunately.


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