By Lawrence Summers
Sunday, December 28, 2008
When President-elect Barack Obama takes office, he will face what may well be the bleakest economic outlook since World War II. Economic forecasts have been revised significantly downward over the past several months; today, many experts believe that unemployment could reach 10 percent by the end of next year and our economy could fall $1 trillion short of its full capacity -- which translates into more than $12,000 in lost income for a family of four.
As difficult as these conditions are, however, the Obama administration also inherits an economy with great potential for the medium and long terms. Investments in an array of areas -- including energy, education, infrastructure and health care -- offer the potential of extraordinarily high social returns while allowing our country to address some long-standing national challenges and put our economy on a solid footing for years to come.
In this crisis, doing too little poses a greater threat than doing too much. Any sound economic strategy in the current context must be directed at both creating the jobs that Americans need and doing the work that our economy requires. Any plan geared toward only one of these objectives would be dangerously deficient. Failure to create enough jobs in the short term would put the prospect of recovery at risk. Failure to start undertaking necessary long-term investments would endanger the foundation of our recovery and, ultimately, our children's prosperity.
Our president-elect understands both the peril and the promise of the situation and the importance of responding to changing conditions. That is why his economic team is crafting a broad proposal, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, to support the jobs and incomes essential for recovery while also making a down payment on our nation's long-term financial health.
A key pillar of the Obama plan is job creation. In the face of deteriorating economic forecasts, Obama has revised his goal upward, to 3 million. For one thing, significantly fewer positions would be created in the absence of any recovery plan. Second, more than 80 percent of these 3 million jobs will be in the private sector, including emerging sectors such as environmental technology. This is a bold goal. But economists across the political spectrum recognize that it is far less risky to stand firmly against the forces propelling our economy downward than to be timid in the face of a mounting crisis.
The Obama plan represents not new public works but, rather, investments that will work for the American public. Investments to build the classrooms, laboratories and libraries our children need to meet 21st-century educational challenges. Investments to help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil by spurring renewable energy initiatives (many of which are on hold because of the credit crunch). Investments to put millions of Americans back to work rebuilding our roads, bridges and public transit systems. Investments to modernize our health-care system, which is necessary to improve care in the short term and key to driving down costs across the board.
Laying the groundwork for recovery and future prosperity will require shedding Washington habits. We must measure progress not by the agendas of interest groups but by whether the American people experience results. We must focus not on ideology but on drawing the best ideas from all quarters. That is why, for example, in key sectors such as energy, Obama is pushing for both public investments and the removal of barriers to private investment. It is also why his plan relies on both government spending and tax cuts to raise incomes and promote recovery.
The president-elect has insisted that investments proposed in the recovery plan meet standards much higher than has been traditional. There will be no earmarks. Investments will be chosen strategically based on what yields the highest rate of return for the economy and monitored closely not just by officials but also by the public as government becomes more transparent. We expect to evaluate and to be evaluated rigorously to ensure that Washington is held accountable for how tax dollars are spent.
Some argue that instead of attempting to both create jobs and invest in our long-run growth, we should focus exclusively on short-term policies that generate consumer spending. But that approach led to some of the challenges we face today -- and it is that approach that we must reject if we are going to strengthen our middle class and our economy over the long run. Far from being an excuse for inaction or delay, the magnitude of the work ahead is all the more reason to begin that work.
The writer served as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration and will head the White House National Economic Council in the Obama administration.