Three points to serve as background:
First of all, from the day after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the policies followed by the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. Federal Reserve and the U.S. administrations have been very helpful. They have been good ones. The alternative--standing back and watching the markets deal with the situation--would have gotten us a much higher unemployment rate than we have now. Credit easing by the Fed and support of the banking system by the Fed and the Treasury have significantly helped the economy: have kept things from getting much worse.
Second, the fact that investment bankers did not go bankrupt last December and are profiting immensely this year is a side issue. Each extra percentage point of unemployment lasting for two years costs us $400 billion. A recession twice as deep as the one we have had would have cost us as a country some $2 trillion--and cost the world as a whole four times as much. In that scale and context the bonuses of Goldman Sachs are rounding error. And any attempt to make investment bankers suffer more last fall and winter would have put the entire support operation at risk: as Federal Reserve Vice Chair Don Kohn said, ensuring that a few thousands investment bankers receive their just financial punishment is a non-starter when attempts to do so put the jobs of millions of Americans--and tens of millions outside the United States--at risk.
Third, the Obama administration's fiscal boost program has also significantly helped the economy: aid to impacted states has been a big win, the jury is still out on the effect of the tax cuts in the stimulus, and the flow of government spending on a whole variety of relatively useful causes is in train and is boosting production and employment in the same way that everyone's boost to spending boosts production and employment. And the cost of carrying the extra debt incurred is extraordinarily low: $12 billion a year of extra taxes would be enough to finance the fiscal boost program at current interest rates, and for that cost American taxpayers will get an extra $1 trillion of produced goods and services and employment will be higher by about ten million job-years.
Thus the big valid complaints about policy over the past fourteen months are not that it has run up the national debt and not that it has rewarded the princes of Wall Street, but rather that it has, if anything, been on too small a scale--that we ought to have done more.
Yet these policies appear, somehow, to be political losers in Washington right now: nobody is proposing to do more along the same lines. This is strange: usually when something works the natural impulse is to do it again.
So what is going on?