The core of our economic problem is… mainly mortgage debt -- that households ran up during the bubble years of the last decade. Now that the bubble has burst, that debt is acting as a persistent drag on the economy, preventing any real recovery… [O]nce you realize that the overhang of private debt is the problem, you realize that there are a number of things that could be done about it...Notice that Krugman isn't making the mistake of embarking here on yet another round of carping against the Obama Administration.
[W]e could have W.P.A.-type programs putting the unemployed to work doing useful things like repairing roads -- which would also, by raising incomes, make it easier for households to pay down debt. We could have a serious program of mortgage modification, reducing the debts of troubled homeowners. We could try to get inflation back up to… 4 percent… which would help to reduce the real burden of debt…
I recognize, of course, the political obstacles to actually pursuing any of the policies that might work... [A]ny effort to tackle unemployment will run into a stone wall of Republican opposition…
As I see it, policy makers are sinking into a condition of learned helplessness on the jobs issue: the more they fail to do anything about the problem, the more they convince themselves that there’s nothing they could do. And those of us who know better should be doing all we can to break that vicious circle.
The problem here, as always, is primarily Republican obstructionism against any pro-active efforts to address actual problems with tools actually on hand on the basis of actually macro-economically literate policies (just as Republicans refuse to address problems of climate change with available tools in accord with literate climate science -- just as they refuse to shape healthcare policy with available tools in accord with literate social principles -- eg, health care is not a commodity, socializing its provision is the only way to bring down costs to a level society can bear, endless historical and international evidence supports this -- just as they refuse to shape drug policy or gun policy or sex education policy with available tools in accord with literate harm reduction principles, just as many of them would refuse to teach evolution in biology classes, or the actual Constitution in civics class -- which they have de-funded out of existence in any case, preferring as they do the insectivorous "patriotism" of unquestioning thugs and saucer-eyed consumers to well-informed citizens with critical thinking skills).
It's not that Obama's people don't understand what Krugman is saying here, nor is it that they would not undertake policies in this vein if they could (though possibly they would not go FDR quite as intensely as Krugman or I would like them to do), but that Republican obstructionism and the right-wing disinformation machine make these sorts of proposals absolute non-starters. And the Obama administration has too many simultaneous crises to deal with on a daily basis to waste time or political capital on non-starters. Pragmatic realism of the kind Obama has retreated to is scarcely equal to the severity of daily difficulties.
This is far from proposing that pragmatic realism is equal to structural difficulties (anthropogenic climate change, financialization of the economy, militarization of the economy, spiraling healthcare costs, structural unemployment, widespread education failure, widespread infrastructure failure, resource descent, and so on), but Republican denialism, obstructionism, nihilism prevents any movement at this structural level.
One might fault Obama for not using the bully pulpit to educate the public on the structural level, but it seems to me he has done this more than he gets credit for, and efforts in this vein are incredibly vulnerable to mass-mediated misinformation and distraction that make them more trouble than they're worth in the face of the urgencies of the moment, as Obama puts out fires on a daily basis.
Still, folks like Krugman and Duncan Black (Atrios) deserve real credit for their persistent insistence that the economic crisis is a job crisis and not a "debt crisis" (and pointing out that even those "deficit hawks" who declare otherwise are shown to be liars by the fact that they inevitably use the deficit as a pretext to do the things they really want -- things that have at best a negligible impact on the deficit -- which tend to be still more tax cuts for the rich, still more deregulation of proven bad actors in economic sector after economic sector, and, especially lately, union busting) and pushing back against the deception and disinformation in ways that the President cannot and should not be expected to do on his own, especially given everything else he is up to.
Although their vital critiques are all too readily read as glib critiques of our so-called elites that have Administration figures as their principal targets, I suspect that they should be seen instead and certainly they should function instead as counter-weights facilitating the emergence of a commonsense understanding the White House already shares and which it would be more than happy to deploy, were it to achieve a consensus of support, in the service of the actually realistic address of real problems in an actually literate way for once.
Against learned helplessness, always learned helpfulness.