Why Obama’s plan is still inadequate and incomplete

Last week, President-elect Barack Obama duly unveiled his American recovery and reinvestment plan. Its title was aptly chosen, for Mr Obama spoke, astonishingly, as if the policies of the rest of the world had no bearing on the fate of the US. He spoke, too, as if a large fiscal stimulus would be enough to restore prosperity. If that is what he believes, Mr Obama is in for a shock. The difficulties he confronts are much deeper and more global than that.

I have little doubt that his advisers are telling the president-elect just this. The points they are – or should be – pressing on him are these.

First, the Japanese policymakers who told everyone the US was in danger of falling into a prolonged period of economic weakness were right. To understand why this is true, you need to read a brilliant book by Richard Koo of the Nomura Research Institute*. In this, he explains how the combination of falling asset prices with high indebtedness forces the private sector to stop borrowing and pay down debt. The government then inevitably emerges as borrower and spender of last resort. Because the Japanese government knew this at least, the country suffered a prolonged recession rather than a slump.

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