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DeLong: Three Narratives for Obama Administration

Following his four ways out of this mess, Brad DeLong at Berkeley Economics says Obama should use one of the three narratives to explain to the public his rescue plan to gather more support:

It seems to me that the Obama administration can go with any of three different truths as it tries to explain its banking programs to the world:

  1. The banks have us by the plums: Keeping the economy near full employment requires pushing asset prices back up to values at which businesses selling stocks and bonds can obtain financing that makes it profitable for them to expand. But pushing asset prices back up enriches the bankers whose overleverage got us into this mess, and prevents them from suffering their just punishment. There is no way out of this dilemma, but the Obama administration is trying as hard as it can given the limited authority congress has granted it to maximize the gain to employment and minimize the support provided to financial princes.

  2. The government has a chance to make a fortune: Just as in 1999 and 2005 financial markets were ruled by irrational exuberance, now they are ruled by irrational pessimism. Because of this irrational pessimism, businesses selling stocks and bonds cannot obtain financing that makes it profitable for them to expand–and so unemployment is high. But the government is not irrationally pessimistic, and is "patient capital": the government can buy up financial assets and so raise their price, boost employment, and then hold the assets until maturity and very likely make a fortune. It can do good for the economy and the country and do well by its own finances at the same time. It is true that financiers who ride-alongside, front-run, and manage the government's portfolio are very likely to make fortunes too, but much smaller fortunes than the government.

  3. We have to play out the hand before we ask for a New Deal: Perhaps the situation can be cured with relatively minor support for the banks. Perhaps the situation will require full-fledged bank nationalization. Bank nationalization could not pass the Senate now. Come this fall, it may be needed–but it will only be clear that it is needed if the Obama administration has done its best to rescue the banking situation with the powers it has at its current disposal. You cannot ask for a New Deal until you have played out your hand.

If the Obama administration were selling any of these three lines of narrative–or were selling all of them–it seems likely to me that it would be having more success is building support for its strategy. But I do not think that it is selling any of these narrative lines to make sense of its policies. Indeed, I do not know what the narrative story it wants to tell about the current situation is.

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