Upon his election in 2008, President Obama was roundly expected to be the financial saviour of the common man.
He railed against “fat cat Wall Street bankers,” criticizing both their behavior and the compensation. He promised to help middle class families by reducing their taxes, increasing the minimum wage and reducing income inequality.
By these measures, he has been an abject failure.
Median family income has continued to decline. Adjusted for inflation, median family income is the lowest it’s been since 1989.
By contrast, the top five and one percent of income earners have enjoyed increases in both wealth and earnings, benefitting from a 150 percent increase in the US stock market and higher corporate profits.
Income inequality has grown.
So was the president a liar or is he merely monumentally incompetent?
Perhaps there is another explanation.
Maybe the president—any president—can’t control all of the things that we expect him or her to.
The economy is significantly more complex than most people (politicians and voters) realize. Our form of government does a pretty decent job of preventing insurmountable power from concentrating into a single political entity, but it is a terribly ineffective system for micromanaging the economy.
When the President of the United States, 435 congressmen, 100 senators and 12 Federal Reserve Board governors try to move the unemployment rate a percentage point or two by using the collective tools available to them, it is akin to trying to warm your house a degree or two by dropping a nuclear bomb on your neighbor’s garage.
Consider the Federal Reserve Board’s $3 trillion quantitative easing (QE) program, scheduled to end this month.
QE was the Federal Reserve Board’s version of Congress’ $475 billion 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP.) TARP was an example of the government doing something that it is almost uniquely qualified to do: bombard a situation with massive, overwhelming resources.
In October 2008, the emergency TARP program created a $435 billion pool to provide liquidity for short-term assets no one else would purchase. The program likely prevented the US economy from coming to a practical standstill in October 2008.
Washington logic says that if $475 billion was helpful, $3 trillion would be six times as helpful.
Except it wasn’t. Quantitative easing has shifted more wealth to the top one percent of wage earners, benefitting arbitrageurs, Wall Street bankers and businesses looking to reduce interest expense.
An open-ended quantitative easing program was the equivalent of waterboarding the same Guantanamo detainee every day for five years. Whatever it was you were hoping to accomplish likely happened in the first week or so, or it wasn’t going to happen at all.
Quantitative easing proved that even with limitless financial resources, the federal government or its agents cannot micromanage the economy.
Remember that next time a candidate for any office promises to create jobs or “get this economy moving again.”