For a National Investment Bank

Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

President Obama is in a bind. He knows that the economic recovery is fragile and dependent on continued fiscal stimulus—hence the bipartisan deal on further tax breaks he brokered in December. But he also knows that the tolerance in Washington for deficits of close to 10 percent of Gross Domestic Product is running out. In the short term, the politics of the new Congress will not allow them; and in the long term, the President’s own National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform has warned against them.

The President’s dilemma was on open display in his State of the Union address in January. It is, he said, deficit spending by government that has “broken the back of this recession”; and government-supported investment in innovation, education, and infrastructure that is needed to “win the future.” But while sending to Congress a budget that he promised will produce “countless new jobs,” the President at the same time proposed to cut the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade.

Overall investment and spending must be maintained by the government in order to support the economy at a time when unemployment remains at unprecedented postwar levels and a quarter of home owners owe more on their mortgages than the value of their property. The Federal Reserve has tried to stimulate the economy through a loose monetary policy, keeping interest rates very low and purchasing $600 billion in Treasury notes from big banks in an effort to make more money available to the banking system—a measure called quantitative easing. But the deficit must also be cut in order to preserve the nation’s creditworthiness.

This is the urgent challenge the President knows America is facing. Is there a way to square the circle? Part of the solution, we believe, lies in the creation of a National Investment Bank that will produce more jobs while not seriously increasing the deficit. Behind this lies solid economic theory.

The theory is Keynesian. John Maynard Keynes did not deny that market economies recovered “naturally” from slumps. He argued that their natural recovery mechanisms were too weak to bring them back to “full employment” within a “reasonable time” (say, three or four years). When private business confidence has been crushed and private investors’ appetite for risk has been curtailed by the painful experience of a recession, private spending will remain in the doldrums for a prolonged period even though output is well below capacity, resources lie idle, and people are unemployed. This is what occurred during the Great Depression, when the American economy took eight years after 1929 to regain its pre-crash peak output, and unemployment remained over 10 percent for more than a decade.

In these circumstances, Keynes argued that the government should run an increased budget deficit to support recovery, because the government is the sole agency able to prevent total spending in the economy from falling below a reasonable level of activity and employment …

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