Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Biden's Economist: An Alternative Voice Tries to Get Heard in the White House

When Jared Bernstein came Vice President Joe den's chief economic adviser, progressives had reason to cheer. He had built a prominent career at the labor-aligned Economic Policy Institute.

In his 2006 book, All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy , Bernstein talks about YOYOs and WITTs--that is, people who say "you're on your own" or those who believe "we're in this together." He advocates a WITT world, with ample safety nets and universal health care, where everyone has the right not only to the basic necessities but also to the modest luxuries and privileges that are expected in an affluent society.

To achieve this, he has proposed low-income tax breaks and government-sponsored progressive universalism, where "everybody gets something but the needy get the most," as described in a 2007 briefing paper.

During a September interview in his office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Bernstein stressed the Administration's commitment to working people but downplayed his own politics, hesitating to describe himself even as a progressive economist.

"I would say I'm an economist who is deeply motivated by the following assertion: If the economy is growing but it's leaving people behind, something is broken and it's got to be fixed," he says. "I'm an economist and a person who believes that the folks who are contributing to the growth, the productivity of the economy, ought to experience those contributions as improving their living standards. And if they don't, something is broken and needs to be fixed. If that means progressive, then, yeah, I'm progressive."

(He was featured at the Center for American Progress's popular Progressivism on Tap series at the Busboys and Poets restaurant and gathering place in Washington in July.)


Bernstein says he has more in common with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers than people might think, claiming these colleagues have an overlooked dedication to the middle class and regular people.

"The goals I've been describing vis-à-vis what a real recovery looks like from the perspective of American families, those are goals deeply shared by every member of the economic team," he says. "I remember Larry Summers saying way back during the transition in one of our earliest meetings, 'Our success will be very much a function of how middle class families do.' And Tim--I think this is underreported--when Tim talks about financial markets, in his mind those markets are very connected to the middle class, to small entrepreneurs who are trying to get a foothold. The Wall Street mainstream position can be one that is falsely emphasized."

Other economists and pundits don't buy this characterization. At a Chicago sneak preview of his movie Capitalism: A Love Story , Michael Moore compared Obama's choice of Geithner and Summers to banks hiring bank robbers.

Former International Monetary Fund chief economist Simon Johnson, S&L regulator William Black, commentator Glenn Greenwald, author Naomi Klein, and others have warned about the cozy ties between Obama's economic team and the financial industry. They have described Summers, Geithner, Commodity Futures Trading Commission chairman Gary Gensler, and adviser Robert Rubin--among others--as part of an oligarchy committed to ongoing financial deregulation and unfettered corporate freedom.

University of Massachusetts-Amherst economics professor Robert Pollin, whose work Bernstein cited in a paper on the federal stimulus package, thinks Bernstein probably squares off with Summers and Geithner behind closed doors more than he is admitting. But Pollin presumes the job gets frustrating for Bernstein.

"His expert area isn't financial markets, it's labor markets, social welfare," says Pollin, founding co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute. "Part of the frustration might be they'd say he's not really an expert, thinking they can dismiss what he says about financial markets because he wasn't picked to think about that; he was picked to think about what's good for ordinary people. Probably they say, 'We expect Jared to say that, we want him to say that, now we have to take a more conservative approach.' "

Les Leopold, executive director of the Labor Institute in New York and author of the recent book The Looting of America, recognizes the constraints Bernstein is up against.

"He's just one person. I've never expected him to be able to turn the whole Administration around," he says. "Once Larry Summers was there, I didn't think Jared would have a lot of influence. Jared works for a living the way you and I do. Summers works in a different way--he expects to get several million a year for a few hours work. He's part of that elite."

But Economic Policy Institute president Larry Mishel, Bernstein's close friend and longtime colleague, thinks the Obama Administration's economic team is more progressive and committed to the common good than some people give them credit for.

"I think they've been very good, the recovery package has been good, what they're doing with health care reform is good," said Mishel, who hired Bernstein as a research assistant at the Economic Policy Institute in 1992. "I've wanted a bit more, but they inherited this financial sector policy. Their economic policies are far more progressive than what was offered in the Kerry campaign or the Gore campaign or the whole Clinton era. It's true some of the same people important in the Clinton era are important here, but their policies are different."

B ernstein grew up in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City with a public school teacher mother and physicist father. He studied at the Manhattan School of Music; he plays string bass--jazz and classical. "I used to be pretty good, but simply don't have the time to practice these days," he says. He does find time for exercise and a weekly game of White House basketball, where he says he and Geithner's counselor Gene Sperling dominate.

Bernstein got master's degrees in social work and philosophy and a doctorate in social welfare at Columbia University. He worked for a time doing research at Columbia's National Center for Children in Poverty.

Mishel, impressed by his number-crunching skills and compassion, hired him to help write The State of Working America in 1992. Bernstein has since co-authored eight editions of the biannual tome. At the Economic Policy Institute, he served in many capacities, among them as director of the Living Standards Program. He also was deputy chief economist for Clinton's Labor Secretary Robert Reich. In both roles, he advocated tackling income inequality and strengthening social safety nets, especially transitional ones to help families bounce back from tough times.

In 2008, Bernstein published Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries) , explaining economic concepts and questions in common language. Publishers Weekly recommended the book's "friendly manner that sidesteps any scholarly (and/or sinister) obfuscation." As the economic crisis and Presidential campaign unfolded, he also was a frequent commentator, earning $70,000 in 2008 for more than 130 appearances on the business news cable channel CNBC.

B ernstein won't speculate on how much influence he has on Obama and Biden. But he says he relishes his new role.

"I remember being at EPI and talking about Keynesian stimulus, and having conversations in the hallways with my great colleagues," he says. "A week later I'm here talking about these issues but there's real policy and real money riding on it, so there's a lot more pressure to get it right. At the end of the day, this ain't about me having great conversations, this isn't about Obama having great conversations, this is about implementing policies that will lift working families in a way they haven't been in far too long. That is a great privilege but it's ultimately a great responsibility."

Reich applauds his performance.

"Jared is doing a splendid job, under difficult circumstances," he says. "He's a first-rate thinker and economist. He cares about the right things. I have every confidence that his voice is being heard loudly in the White House."

Mishel notes that Bernstein has a much more high-profile role than Vice Presidential advisers would typically take, something he sees befitting Bernstein's talents as a "public intellectual" and spokesman.

"He definitely has a huge talent for articulating ideas," Mishel says. "To the credit of the Administration, he's become a real public presence."

As such, one of Bernstein's major roles has been as the voice for--and defender of--the federal stimulus program.

While conservatives called it big government run amok, prominent progressive voices, including Nobel economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, lamented early on that it was too small and too heavily concentrated in the private market and on tax breaks. In February, Bernstein and Council of Economic Advisers chief Christina Romer predicted that if Congress passed the stimulus, unemployment would remain at 8 percent or lower. As it turned out unemployment hit 9.8 percent in September even with the stimulus. If he had it to do over, would Bernstein push a differently crafted stimulus--perhaps with more public investment and more money going directly to states to help them keep mandatory balanced budgets without making massive cuts? Bernstein stands by his original position, saying that by the end of 2010 the stimulus will have saved 3.5 million jobs and kept unemployment 1 percent or 2 percent lower than it would have been. He credits the stimulus package for the fact that job losses by month dropped significantly during the summer.

"The evidence is that the Recovery Act is helping," he says, munching pretzels in his spacious but not ostentatious office, adorned with photos of his two daughters, ages seven and ten, adopted from China. (One of them presumably left the mischievous post-it note on the door saying, "My dad is NOT in a meeting." He also has a twenty-five-year-old daughter.)

"There is no conceivable recovery package on Earth that would have taken us from the hole we were in to a totally recovered economy," he says. "The gaps in GDP and employment were too large, the damage too deep. But we certainly got things back moving in the right direction and we will just have to make sure we keep moving there as we go forward."

But could we have moved forward more quickly with a larger stimulus package, as Krugman, Stiglitz, and others had advocated? Bernstein says the $787 billion to be spent over two years was the "largest package the system could bear."

"We think the economy is going to expand at a rate of about 2 percent next year, and 3.8 percent in 2011," he says. "We think the unemployment rate is going to peak at a rate perhaps above 10 percent on a monthly basis before it begins to come down sometime around mid-2010. We're going to be stuck with a tough labor market in the short term.

"If the economy is not lifting wages, adding jobs, incomes, lifting everyone who wants to work, it's not a recovery from our perspective," he adds. "The way we define recovery is consistent robust monthly job growth delivering wage and income gains to the broad middle class--broadly shared prosperity. That's what we're shooting for."

But Bernstein's ability to achieve this goal may be limited.

"It's one thing for him to be for something, another to persuade the Administration, and another for the Administration to adopt it and persuade Congress," says Pollin. "We can't just assume Obama will hear Jared say something and say, 'Oh, Jared, that's great, let's do that.' You need a progressive movement making demands. That will strengthen Jared's voice within the Administration."

"I don't expect Jared to fight this fight for us by himself," adds Leopold. "Policy is shaped by movements, and the movement's just not there. We're counting on Jared Bernstein to be a good guy, ideologically committed, all of which he is. But he can't do it alone."

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